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Charter school with a special ed focus to teach social skills to all

When the speech pathologist at Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem told her class they would be playing a game called “Pop-Up Pirate,” one student was not happy. He began to whine loudly and another teacher in the room quickly interjected.

“Lucas, can you help us fix this problem?” the teacher asked the student. “Because I’m thinking it’s just a glitch.”

A glitch is the most minor degree of difficulty, according to a chart titled, “How Big is My Problem?” posted in all of the year-old school’s classrooms. It aims to help students understand that some scenarios, such as not getting called on, are less worth getting upset over than other problems, like an earthquake.

This technique of managing behavior is useful for all young children, but it is especially important at Neighborhood Charter, where many students have Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The only charter school in the city to have a special focus on serving high-functioning children with autism, Neighborhood Charter offers a program inspired by the ASD Nest model that the Department of Education launched in 2003 and now runs at 23 of its schools. One of the highlights of Neighborhood Charter’s program is the social skills class, where the school speech pathologist, along with those students’ teachers, show students how to take turns, work collaboratively, express themselves, and handle disappointment.

The rest of the time, students with autism and other special needs are integrated completely into classrooms with their typically developing peers, where teams of teachers hold all students to the same standards and curriculum, according to Principal Brett Gallini.

“We approach special education as a service, not a place,” he said, echoing a philosophy that the Department of Education has adopted in recent years.

NYC Collaborates, a joint program between the Charter Center and the Department of Education that encourages educators to share best practices, brought educators from across the city to Neighborhood Charter last month as part of a weeklong spree of visits to schools that have unique approaches to special education.

The visits were the first time that NYC Collaborates had focused on special education, which has long been a weak spot for the city’s charter sector. Historically, the charter sector enrolled disproportionately few students with special needs, and charter schools have drawn fire for not always adequately serving the students with disabilities who do enroll and for sometimes “counseling out” students who are hard to serve.

Aware of the criticism and under pressure from the state to serve their fair share of students with disabilities, the charter sector has made a concerted effort to improve special education services at its schools. In 2011, the New York City Charter School Center launched a Special Education Collaborative aimed at helping schools learn to serve students with special needs. And some schools have made a special effort to enroll students with disabilities.

The city has one charter school, the New York Center for Autism Charter School, that serves students with autism exclusively. Neighborhood Charter offers a different model, providing services for children with autism but also offering instruction for children who do not have disabilities. Of the 120 kindergartners and first-grades at Neighborhood Charter this year, 30 percent have special needs, and about half of those students have autism.

The student makeup means that the school has to be attuned to issues that might not register as concerns at other schools. For example, since autistic children have certain triggers, the school makes sure to use light bulbs that don’t make noise and to set up classroom decorations that won’t over-stimulate students with sensory issues, Gallini said.

But for the most part, all students reap the benefits of having a school set up to serve children with special needs. In each Neighborhood Charter classroom, one teacher has general education credentials and the other is a special education teacher, and all the teachers are trained to work with autistic children.

“We make no distinction between the special education and general education teacher,” he said. “The dynamic duo transcends all groups.”

Teachers structure class time with specific instructions to account for every minute. In one classroom, students sat cross-legged with stickers on their foreheads and their cheeks puffed out. Gallini said teachers use objects such as stickers, colorful beads, and paper crowns as positive reinforcement. As for the blowfish faces, he said that to keep students quiet, teachers tell them to put a “bubble in their mouth” when they have something to say and then “pop the bubble” when it is their turn to speak.

“When kids misbehave or don’t do the right thing, it’s because we didn’t tell them what to do,” Gallini said. “We sweat the small stuff…When that structure is there, our kids feel safe.”

Responding to a teacher on the recent tour who asked how the school metes out consequences without punishing students for their disabilities, Gallini said discipline is tailored to each student’s needs and skills. As students get older, the school will loosen the reins and allow them to have more independence, he added.

The only time the students with autism are separated from their peers is when they attend their social skills program most days of the week with the school’s speech pathologist.

But that will change next year. The school found the social skills class so successful in its first year that it is expanding enrollment to all students, regardless of whether they have special needs, Gallini said. He said the school will train all classroom teachers to offer the social skills instruction, so students won’t have to leave their classes to get the support.

Neighborhood Charter’s program differs from the city’s ASD Nest program in other ways, too. It has a longer school day – running from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. — and year, with 195 days instead of the typical 180. Gallini said that as the school continues to develop, he’s not married to just one model of autism instruction. Instead, he said, he wants to pick and choose from the best models that exist across the country. This fall, for example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s TEACCH Autism Program will provide on-site staff training in the “structured teaching” model it promotes.

The school will expand to include second grade next year and eventually add a middle school. Gallini said the school aimed for at least two years of growth for each student by the end of the year and the majority of his students are on track to achieve that goal.

“We don’t counsel people out,” Gallini said, alluding to the illicit practices that some charter schools have been accused of. “What do we say in kindergarten? We get what we get and we don’t get upset.”

He added, “Everyone says they’re accepting of students with special needs but we’re welcoming of it.”