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Special Education Perspectives 2007
NYC Public Charter School Breaks Barriers
By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

Evan is a non-verbal eight-year-old boy who is diagnosed with severe autism. He sits attentively at his desk, working at lightning pace to match pictures of common household objects—a TV, a backpack, a video—to their proper words. Having successfully completed his project, he amasses enough pennies on his reward card to select a treat. He chooses to reward himself with music and instinctively moves to the music corner where he puts on headphones until a timer rings to tell him that it is time to return to work.

In an adjoining room, Thomas is working with his teacher, Pam, to role-play appropriate behavior. The night before, he had exploded in a tantrum when his father had asked him to brush his teeth. “What should you have said, Thomas?” Pam asks gently, after re-enacting the scene as Thomas’ father. “I should not have said I hate my dad,” responds Thomas thoughtfully.

What do Evan and Thomas have in common? They are two of only 12 students at the one-year old New York Center for Autism Charter School (NYCA) on East 100th Street, and both have progressed light years since enrolling last fall. “There are 5000 kids in New York City with an autism diagnosis,” explains NYCA’s Executive Director, Jamie Pagliaro. “Most of these kids are stuck in special ed classrooms with kids who have all different kinds of disabilities, like Down’s Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy. Sometimes the easiest thing for the teacher to do when juggling six kids with really intense, diverse needs is to put our kids [those with autism] aside and let them relax—give them a lot of down time. But our kids don’t need down time. They need rapid catch up,” he concludes emphatically.

Indeed, catch-up at NYCA, which is the first charter school in New York that exclusively serves children with disabilities, occurs at a fast and furious pace. Like The McCarton School (a private school for autistic children), NYCA educators use intensive Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which Pagliaro refers to as “a toolkit of research-based interventions that have been proven to be effective and are based on behavioral principles.” At any given moment, teachers—who provide one-on-one instruction at all times —might be using discrete trial training, video modeling, incidental teaching on the floor, or role-playing to stimulate learning and behavioral change. Hallmark features of NYCA’s program include repetition and practice, positive reinforcement (the reward system), and extensive use of data to chart progress. “Our kids don’t go more than a few days without making progress on benchmarks,” explains Pagliaro, a recent MBA with over a decade’s experience in special education. Evan’s chart is a case in point: his skill mastery is plotted in a series of spiked graphs, indicating that he must accrue three consecutive days at 90 percent performance before moving on to the next task.

Started by two parents of children with autism, Laura Slatkin and Ilene Lainer, who were frustrated by the paucity of special education placements for autistic children, NYAC is blessed with a network of private donations that supplement the $62,000 per child reimbursement from city, state and federal coffers. (Ironically, neither Slatkin’s nor Lainer’s child is enrolled in NYCA, because neither was “lotteried in” under the strict requirements for New York City charter schools.) Like most of the city’s charter schools, NYCA started small but will add 8 new students each year for the next two years, reaching a maximum of 28 youngsters from 5 to 14 years old in its full day, 12-month program.

Realizing that he can only serve a finite number of children, Pagliaro has proposed a three-part collaboration with the city’s Department of Education.  First, he’d provide education to the city’s Committee on Special Education (CSE) administrators, helping to illustrate what a high quality educational program for autism should look like; second, he’d offer up NYCA as a lab environment so that teachers and aides could learn on-site before beginning their jobs elsewhere; and finally, he’d give intensive consultation to others who might be starting up autism programs in a public school setting.

As he strides purposefully through the building, Jamie Pagliaro is intimately familiar with every student, with a word of encouragement or pat on the back to each one he sees. His last stop of the day is Sebastian’s room, where he finds the boy carefully preparing a Swiffer to clean his corner of the room before departing for the weekend. “When he arrived, Sebastian would punch, kick, and throw chairs; he sometimes required four to five staff members to intervene. He was very dangerous,” confides Pagliaro. “He’s only had two incidents of aggression since May.” Sebastian agrees to play “Itsy Bitsy Spider” on the piano before he leaves: sitting next to his instructor, Lynn, he slowly follows a series of color-coded musical notes to bang out the popular melody. At one point, he falters. “I can’t do it,” he worries. “Yes you can,” Lynn encourages him cheerfully. He finishes the piece and stands up to take a bow.

“I’ve worked in a lot of programs,” reflects Pagliaro. “But this one is my baby and I love it,” he adds with a huge grin.#



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