An Exclusive to the Empire Report by New York State’s 4201 Schools Association
As the classrooms of more than 700 school districts across New York State migrated to online learning this spring – 10 specialized schools from Erie to Suffolk County were also asked to adapt and teach their 1,500 children who are blind, deaf or have severe physical challenges. State law provides public funding of certain schools under a special section of its Education Law – Section 4201, 10 of which are members of the 4201 Schools Association.
The issues these specialized, state-funded schools have confronted in recent months are similar to their mainstream colleagues – such as internet access and availability of laptops and tablets, to virtual classrooms and rusty parental recall of Algebra.
They also needed to creatively solve problems many other schools were not faced with, including families that are not conversant in American Sign Language (ASL), or providing specialized social and emotional support for students with disabilities.
New York State’s constitution ensures a sound basic education for all of its children, including those with special needs. And, for more than 450,000 children – irrespective if they attend their local school district or are enrolled in a 4201 School, or other specialty placements – their education may be supplemented by what educators refer to as an Individual Education Program.
Frequently referred to as an IEP – it provides for unique student needs to be accommodated – such as: calling for intensive speech or physical therapy; one-on-one instruction in ASL or Braille; or perhaps residential accommodation to reduce transportation and travel time from remote residential locations; to access to adaptive equipment and technology; to enjoying athletic competition among their peers.
Dr. Bernadette Kappen, Chair of the 4201 Schools Association and Executive Director of the New York Institute for Special Education said: “Remote instruction was not a choice, but it was fundamentally necessary for students across the state. For the children we serve, their health was the priority, and academically we were and continue to fight academic regression. We were constantly searching for ways to ensure that our students remained engaged – and safe. And, that started with a simple idea that we must find a way to meet the needs of the individual student – and it did not matter if it was in the classroom or through the assistance of technology and specialty devices.”
Timothy Kelly, Co-Chair of the Association and Superintendent of St. Mary’s School for the Deaf said: “Our teachers, counselors and therapists were front liners – reacting in real-time to unforeseen challenges and meeting them head-on and with creativity. Child first was a core value – and we are proud of the way our teams at our member schools reacted to ensuring that the needs of our students and their families were met.”
What has clearly emerged during this time is that the needs of our children are the focus of our actions. As soon as the public health crisis began, engagement was key, and in every school, teams worked to deploy tablets and laptops from their campus to residences across their communities.
In one case, a technology specialist at St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf in Brooklyn prepared laptops for remote use. From his apartment kitchen, he coordinated the distribution of laptops and other technologies through UPS to ensure students had access to their virtual classrooms.
Faced with the unprecedented challenge to teach children and young adults remotely, teachers and support staff got creative in order to maintain their connections with students. The Henry Viscardi School in Nassau County sustained connections with several students through the use of platforms such as Schoology and Microsoft Teams while they were living in a homeless shelter.
At the Cleary School for the Deaf in Suffolk County, its Zoom sessions quickly expanded to breakout rooms providing learning structures similar to the style of a classroom. Additionally, an existing association with a Broadway actor turned into a one-on-one, socially distant mentorship for one of their students interested in Theatre Arts.
Three Bronx-based schools found unique and imaginative ways to maintain student growth and connections with the community, for example at Lavelle School for Blind, the virtual instruction was bolstered and reinforced through parental engagement. Therapies that were being provided remotely, and reinforced at home, led to outcomes that exceeded expectations. The New York Institute for Special Education featured their students’ Spring Concert virtually with performances ranging from interpretive dance, to piano solos, to vocal arrangements. Distance learning and engagement at St. Joseph’s School for the Deaf featured the production and availability of more than 70 different videos posted including science lessons, quizzes and entertaining stories.
In Western New York, the St. Mary’s School for the Deaf, its physical education director made the commitment to travel to the home of each student and conduct socially distant, backyard and sidewalk workouts to keep students healthy and active while at home.
High school students at the Rochester School for the Deaf were paired with elementary age students with the goal of maintaining peer and modeling relationships throughout the summer.
To address language deprivation, Lexington School for the Deaf, Queens, offered families online ASL classes and support groups. Staff with fluency in Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin, Bengali and other languages maintained connections with families representing 26 different languages. The result was a significant increase in home-school engagement.
The New York School for the Deaf, in Westchester County, leveraged an existing partnership with the ISISS Magarotta Roma, a residential school for the deaf in Rome, Italy. The intent of the virtual exchange program originally focused on conveying Italian language and culture – but as the challenges of April, May and June emerged, it became a catalyst for common understanding and challenges being experienced across the globe in the context of the worldwide pandemic.
Safely educating New York State’s nearly 3 million students is an enormous responsibility, and we the members of the 4201 School Association recognize the unique academic needs of blind, deaf and
severely disabled students. We urge policy makers in Albany to remain committed to providing appropriate resources to meet the individual needs and constitutional rights of each student.
The 4201 Schools Association is composed of 10 privately operated schools specializing in the instruction of children with low-incidence disabilities. They receive public funding through a provision contained in the state education law, section 4201.