Gateway School Tackles Learning Disabilities
Reflecting a growing need, the Gateway School, which serves children ages 5 to 12 who have learning disabilities, has grown from three students at its inception in 1964 to a current enrollment of sixty and looks forward to eventually having eighty students in a middle school to be created this fall. Gateway was established by a parent, Claire Flomm, who, when told her son Peter needed institutionalization, looked for other solutions. She turned to Elizabeth Freidus, an instructor at Columbia’s Teachers College who had done research in the area of disabilities and created a special education school with Freidus as founding director. As a “funded school,” Gateway negotiates a contract with the State Department of Education for reimbursement for students with special needs that cannot be met in area public schools.
Headmaster Robert B. Cunningham explains that a key to success with learning disabled students is tapping on strengths as well as addressing challenges. He advises, “It doesn’t make sense to focus on what is most difficult and frustrating. That is not the way to create lifelong learners. What you create are frustrated and angry people.” Determined to keep special education “special,” he explains, “It is still a common perception that special education kids need things to be done slower. Not so—they need things to be done differently. The idea is to teach them on that line—that mid-ground between challenge and frustration. And you can see great results.” Students learn best by working interactively. At Gateway there is “little individuality but much individualized instruction.” The ungraded school works with intentionally heterogeneous groups.
“The hardest part of my job is admissions, confesses Cunningham. The number of applicants to the school far exceeds the available spaces and the admissions process is intensive. Gateway looks for indications of “real capability” as well as difficulties and challenges that might impair the strengths. It looks for youngsters who will bring something to the group but also take something away. Typically, a student remains at Gateway for three years before transitioning out, although some remain until age 12. Periodic assessments monitor progress. “Kids change,” explains the headmaster and even though it may be difficult to face relocation, students “must find the most appropriate program as they go along.” The school works with parents and professionals to find the best place, which might be a mainstream school or another special education institution. “New York City has 5 or 6 very good schools for children with learning disabilities.” A disturbing trend, according to the headmaster, is many schools are becoming less receptive to accepting children with learning problems and are less flexible.
Cunningham had an interesting path to Gateway. He taught in Japan and on the Texas-Mexican border where frustration at not being able to reach many students led him to Teachers College and a MA’s in special education and in administration. He was an assistant principal in a public school in Greenwich, Connecticut before coming to Gateway. At Gateway, he is emphasizing technical literacy and environmental conservation. The school’s new home on West 61st Street, which will open in the fall, will be the first LEED school in Manhattan. He looks forward to the “healthier learning environment.” Students are tracked after they leave and often return to speak about their post-Gateway experiences. Among them is Peter Flomm whose mother founded the school rather than institutionalize him. An inspiration for current students, today he holds a PhD in statistics.#