Tuesday, February 22, 2011

NY school tries to enrich educational experiences of disabled students

From The NY Times:

ALBERTSON, N.Y. — It is lunchtime in the cafeteria of the Henry Viscardi School in Nassau County, and two eighth graders are doing what boys their age do best: batting insults back and forth.

“Get off my case,” Jalen says.

“If you had a case, I’d get off it,” a classmate replies.

“You’re weird,” Jalen retorts. “No, you’re weird.”

It is a scene that could unfold on any given taco Tuesday in any school cafeteria, save for one crucial difference: Jalen has cerebral palsy and is unable to speak; his testy remarks come not from his mouth but from a machine called a DynaVox, mounted on his joystick-controlled wheelchair.

Viscardi is one of several private schools in New York that enroll severely disabled children, using technology and on-site medical care to keep its students, some of whom are incapable of speech or even movement, in the classroom.

Its 185 students, in prekindergarten through 12th grade, come from all over the New York region, some arriving daily by ambulance. The nurse’s office is not just a place for students to escape a pop quiz, but also an in-house triage unit that handles 100 or more visits a day to administer medications and provide services like suctioning clean students’ airways. Almost every year, a few medically frail students die.

“We have the same expectations for our students to achieve academically and for them to fully participate in the whole educational experience,” said the school’s executive director, Patricia Kuntzler. “Whether it’s a field trip for the kindergarten to the pumpkin farm or whether it’s being part of a school paper.”

“What we do differently is determine how the student can best access that, given their physical disabilities,” she said.

Under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act and other laws, all children are entitled to free education in an environment that meets their needs. And court rulings in recent years have given parents broad rights to seek government reimbursement for private special education. The state currently pays the yearly tuition of about $72,000 for most of the students at Viscardi, with a good part of the money going to the technology that allows the students to participate in class and the medical care that keeps them alive.

Before coming to Viscardi two years ago, Dayna Stropkay, who previously attended public schools in Garden City, in Nassau County, was under the constant supervision of an aide. She is unable to speak, walk or care for herself, and the arrangement in school seemed to be increasing her dependency, said her mother, Denise Stropkay. In public school, Dayna repeatedly failed her Regents examinations, but nevertheless dreamed of attending college.

“There can be great isolation,” Ms. Kuntzler said, “with one student and one aide rather than a group of kids and independent mobility and a social situation that says, ‘No, you’re expected to follow the schedule, you’re expected to complete the assignments.’ ”

At Viscardi, Dayna, who is 20 (students can stay until they turn 21) has no dedicated aide. But things like bathroom attendants and a class size of nine have allowed her a degree of autonomy she never knew before, her mother said. She received a hearing aid after a specialist working for the school discovered she was nearly deaf. She recently passed four Regents exams.

“You have to get through all these layers before you get the person,” Ms. Stropkay said. “At Viscardi, you’re right at the person.”

Viscardi’s ability to cater to profoundly disabled students is an indication of advances in both public education and in medical care. In its earlier years, a typical Viscardi student might be one who used crutches, but had no other pressing medical issues. Now, spurred by the Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability, many public schools have made changes to accommodate such students. And medical advances, said Gail Nolan, a Viscardi nurse, have enabled even highly debilitated children to attend school.

They study the same curriculum used in New York City public schools, but it is adapted through technology for children who may not be able to see, hear, speak or turn a textbook’s pages. Art class, for instance, features baseball caps mounted with drawing implements for children who cannot move their hands.

Along with math and history, students’ therapies may incorporate academics. In speech therapy, Dylan Cuevas, a second grader who is fed by a tube and breathes with the help of a ventilator, reads his course work aloud, said his mother, Debbie Cuevas; in occupational therapy he learns the motor skills to manipulate a computer mouse. “They are trying to strengthen his hands,” Ms. Cuevas said, “and also are giving him independence.”

With illness a part of life at Viscardi, tragedy can be, too. May Mancuso, 19, who has spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy, as well as emotional problems, left Viscardi after two years.

“She would come back from the vacation and say, ‘I wonder if anybody died,’ ” recalled her mother, Karla Mancuso, who moved May to the Smith School, a private school for struggling students in Manhattan. “Seeing so much illness and so much unhappiness in school, I think it compounded her depression and her anxiety.”

But inside Viscardi, the atmosphere is lively. On a recent day, a dead ringer for Dora the Explorer who has a condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bones, spun doughnuts around her first-grade teacher in a wheelchair; down the hall, a senior who could move only one eyebrow chatted with the help of a futuristic eye-tracking device called the EyeMax System. It translates the movements of her retinas into commands for her DynaVox.

Whether this supportive environment helps students pursue livelihoods outside the school’s walls, where tools like DynaVoxes are rare, is not clear. For this reason, federal regulations mandate that students be taught in their home schools if possible, said Rebecca H. Cort, a deputy commissioner for the New York State Education Department.

In a school like Viscardi, Ms. Cort said, “you don’t necessarily build a level of both independent functioning and confidence,” which may be better imparted in a regular educational environment.

But Ms. Kuntzler said that about 70 percent of Viscardi students continued their education in college and vocational schools, and some did succeed in the work force.

“We’ve seen a change in technology, a change in special education and a change in federal law, because individuals with disabilities have demanded it,” Ms. Kuntzler said. “As a school, we are about possibilities. We are not about limitations.”