The April Chat & Network for educational leaders was planned around the question, “ What can you say was a success story working with students who have special needs during this time of the pandemic?” Based on this prompt, our invited guests, Mary Clancy, the Associate Head of School at the Cooke School and Institute, and Shante Spivey, Principal and Program Director of the Theresa Paplin School shared with us their stories of hope and joy.
The Cooke School and Institute serves children with developmental disabilities ages 5-21. These students benefit from a stable setting, routine, structure, and stability, particularly for students with neurodiverse conditions. Determined to continue providing a stable setting during the covid19 pandemic, the Cooke School redesigned its approach. According to Mary Clancy, it was a tremendous feat, an effort with many ups and downs. More recently, as the school has stepped out of the “fog”, they have been able to appreciate and take note of moments of success in their students. In some cases, removing some of the barriers of a traditional school environment has provided students with new opportunities to connect and thrive. For example, students that struggle with social demands or sensory processing, and now not being faced with travel, large crowds on a bus or in a cafeteria. They have found this not only a relief, but have proven that it has impacted positively on their overall behavior. In general, the redesigned approach resulting from the pandemic has eliminated some of the anxiety by creating a safe school environment that offers a purposefully designed and regulated experience. As the school plans for next fall, the question that they are pondering is how they can transfer these lessons as they move forward and “back to normal”, or better yet, “back to a new normal”.
The Theresa Paplin School is a special needs and residential high school in Queens for adolescents and young adults with serious emotional and developmental delays. During the April Chat & Network event, Ms. Spivey shared that in the beginning, some of the students had a very hard time coping, particularly those who could not be sent home. The staff was equally afraid and concerned, but after assessing the situation, the school came up with a plan that has proven very successful.
Working as a team, the school created the logo, “United We Stand - 6 feet Apart”. Motivated by these words, and using existing arts and printing supplies, teachers guided students in the design of COVID-related posters and flyers to hang across the Ottilie campus and throughout the entire SCO Family of Services agency to help remind people how to stay well and avoid spreading the coronavirus. The initial poster became an overnight success, and the school received orders for additional copies from their other SCO schools. Encouraged by this welcoming reception and aware of the positive influence of the work on their students, Ms. Spivey explained how the school invested in professional printers and materials. As a result, students, with their teachers, were able to ship an order of 160 printed and laminated posters to 75 other SCO locations. Today, the school is operating a real business - the Dream Factory- that produces t-shirts and posters for students and staff at the Ottilie campus and for people outside their school. Ms. Spivey mentioned that the school has expanded its curriculum to include teaching its students how to run a business, while emphasizing that the school's priority continues to be keeping the students safe and happy. Answering the call to action in this way has given these students a sense of empowerment. They know they are helping to prevent the spread of this disease, possibly saving lives. They’re proud that they’ve been able to do something good for their fellow students and the entire SCO community.
The above stories resonated with participants at the Chat & Network event, particularly for students who might become socially anxious and have blossomed working remotely from home. Similarly, the way schools are planning for the next academic year is a shared goal concerning their children with special needs. At the Theresa Paplin School, administration and teachers are redesigning the school’s mission and vision to reflect what was accomplished during the pandemic, including online work during in-person learning. Similarly, at the Cooke School, Mary Clancy shared that they are refining its goals based on what was done during these challenging times, like giving teachers more freedom to teach what is really important and create a “classroom space” to best meet the needs of their students.
This Chat & Network proved to be very inspiring and uplifting. Connecting with parents and children and bringing into the classroom what they learned from remote learning were goals all agreed were something to consider as they look forward to what is to come.