Jovannah Poor Bear-Adams remembers all the students who have come through Holbrook Academy. In her seven years there—first as girls’ dean and English teacher, then as vice principal, and now as Dean of Student Services and Programming—she has worked with hundreds of students, each with their own unique narrative.
She remembers those rare students who are academically prepared for the school year, and whose parents are supportive and involved, but more common are the students of abusive families and minimal education: the freshman who couldn’t read the alphabet; the orphaned kindergartner who slept on the floor at her grandmother’s house; the young woman whose mother took her and her three siblings to a Walmart and said, “I’m done being your mother,” and drove away; the straight-A student who went home for the summer and came back suicidal because of the sexual abuse she had suffered at the hands of her uncle.
These are the students Adams remembers, and it is for them that the Holbrook alum continues to work in a school whose turnover rate is so high that last fall the staff celebrated the fact that no one had quit.
Considering her own background—both as a native American and as a victim of sexual abuse—it is not hard to understand why Adams works with one of the most disenfranchised populations in America.
“There is a huge gap between where I started and where I am now,” Adams said, recounting her childhood of homelessness, drug use, and sexual and physical abuse. “I want to bridge that gap for the students. I want to give them what I wish I had when I was their age.”
A tailor-made career
When Adams graduated from Union College and returned to Holbrook in 2011 as the new girls’ dean and English teacher, she saw the need for more than scholastic education.
“There is such a wide range of students in the dorm,” she said. “Some don’t have electricity or running water at home, and they use outhouses. Every year we’ve had a student who will not use the restroom here because they’re afraid of the toilet.”
As the dean and teacher, Adams observed how difficult it is for students to learn from a textbook when they don’t understand or trust their environment. When she became vice principal in 2012, Adams continued to notice fundamental obstacles that restricted students from an education.
“As vice principal, a lot of my work was pure discipline,” she said. “We were so busy trying to deal with behavioral issues that I didn’t have time to do anything proactive. I wanted to be able to teach and work with students in a positive way.”
So great was the need—and Adams’ desire to address it—that in 2016 she wrote a proposal for a job description and presented it to the principal. The proposal outlined the challenges she had observed at Holbrook, and the ways in which she could begin to overcome them. The principal and the school board approved the proposal, and in July of that year Jovannah assumed her new role at Holbrook: Dean of Student Services and Programming.
The title is suitably broad, but even it does not carry the weight of what Adams does for the students at Holbrook; her role is nothing less than to provide for the safety, success, and sense of wellbeing in her students, now and in the future.
“The role is a lot of picking up things that can get overlooked,” she said. “But they are things that are very, very important to the students’ success.”
Helping students thrive
On the surface, Adams’ new tailor-made role seems typical of what one would expect at an academy: working with the deans, parents, and students.
Look deeper, however, you see that Adams’ interactions are more profound than typical academy coordination. Her work with the deans includes teaching a dorm curriculum that gives students proper health and hygiene skills—how to use a toilet and to brush their teeth, for example—among other lifestyle skills that are often overlooked in abusive homes. Her work with parents is to encourage deeper involvement and safer homes, the latter of which is addressed with classes that include healthy cooking and self-defense for women.
But it is her work with students that has begun to reshape Holbrook Academy.
“I’ve been where these students are,” Adams said. “When I came here as a freshman, I had no idea that people actually ate three times a day. I thought that was just in the movies. That’s where these kids are now, but I know I can offer them a link between this and where they can be.”
The challenge is not only to perform the duties typical of a dean of student services—a laundry list of planning, researching, coordinating and interacting—but also to give shape to a world in which each student believes he or she can succeed. Adams is not only a resource; she is a beacon of hope.
“Once these kids adapt to the structure, they realize they are free to be themselves,” she said. “Holbrook is a very good place to be.”
Holbrook is such a good place to be that last summer eight students elected to remain on campus for a brand new six-week summer program designed by Adams that included classes in horsemanship, Spanish and pottery, in addition to a daily regimen of games, activities, and camp meetings.
“There isn’t much to do on the reservation except get into trouble,” Adams said. “The majority of the students who want to stay here do so because it is safe.” The sense of safety that Adams and other Holbrook staff strive daily to impart on students is not limited to the physical. Adams has recently designed and implemented programs that bolster spiritual, mental and emotional wellbeing as well.
Among the numerous components added to Holbrook curriculum in recent years are lessons on how to pray, how to abstain from drugs and alcohol, how to study for a test, how to deal with grief, how to write a resume and how to grow vegetables. Additionally, Adams organizes health fairs with the physical education staff, drug free weeks with the counselors, and college weeks with the teachers.
“Holbrook has progressed so much since I was a student,” Adams said. “We still serve the same number of students, but we are offering them so much more.”
Educated for a life of service
That philosophy of deep, holistic education is nothing new to Adams. When she went to Union College to pursue her degree in Language Arts Education, she saw firsthand the value of a broad, student-oriented curriculum. But it was the compassionate community endemic to Union College that got Adams—then pregnant with her first child—through her senior year.
“My husband and I were sleeping on an egg crate mattress on the floor of our apartment,” Adams recalled. “I was six months pregnant at the time, and we didn’t have much.”
When a Union staff member learned the pregnant student was sleeping on the floor, she rallied the campus.
“By the time that day ended, we were sleeping on a real bed,” Adams said. “We also had a couch, a chair, a kitchen table, dishes and more. We had a home all because people I didn’t even know came together to help.”
“I finished college because of the people at Union,” she added.
That experience so moved her—and restored her faith in a God she had grown distant from—that Adams made a contract with God to return to Holbrook after graduation.
“I felt like God wanted me to work with native people,” she said. “I wanted to show them that they could go to college too.”
When she graduated from Union, Adams followed through on her commitment and returned to Holbrook.
“Everything at Union worked together for me,” she said. “Now, God’s plan has revealed itself.”
by Michael Rohm ’14