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Beginning a New School and Knowing When It’s Time to Say Good-bye

December 5, 2010 2 comments

I always loved my school.  It was started before the first special education law , PL94-142,  when there was no entitlement to a free and appropriate public school education until age 21.  Students with developmental disabilities remained in an elementary school setting until age 17.  At that time, if they were independent travelers, they could attend an occupational training center to learn skills that would hopefully help them to get a job.  Students who could not travel by themselves were out of luck, they stayed at home.  That was until a sage man, Murray Beer, saw the need to have these young adults continue in a school setting.  He wrote a grant and thanks to Murray, the Brooklyn ASTC was born in 1975.

We were called the Adult Skills Training Center, a small school, 3 classes and about 15 staff.  We recruited students from the neighborhood and from the nearby Brooklyn Developmental Center.  We ran the gamut of students who aged out of their neighborhood schools and were sitting home watching television or hanging out on the streets getting into trouble to those who never attended a public school and under the Willowbrook  Consent Decree, were getting on a school bus for the first time.

I remember coming to the building with my colleagues about a week before the arrival of the students so we could plan and set things up.  The excitement was incredible, with energy and ideas abounding. We were going to do wonders with our unserved students.  We were trailblazers.   We collaborated and shared ideas and waited eagerly for the day that our students would arrive.  I still remember the first day,  some  students came via school bus, some by themselves,  wandering in to see what was going on, and others with parents who were so grateful that there was somewhere for their child to go during the day.  There was a zero rejection policy, all were welcomed.

We developed our own curriculum, consisting of functional academics and life skills.  We billed ourselves as a community based school whose mission was to promote social growth and to help our students to become as independent as possible.  Parents loved the idea, they yearned for their young adults to be independent and get out into the community.

Budget was an issue, there was little money for supplies. We scrounged for donations and used our own funds as well.  We wanted to do the right things for our students.  The staff worked as a team, pitching in whenever and wherever the need arose, handling behavioral issues, sharing students, and switching them informally so all could receive the proper supports.  There was no territoriality, we were a family and we wanted to do what worked for the students.   Parents were always welcomed and were encouraged  to begin a parent association.

Staying late or coming in early was never an issue.  We were so committed to our students, that was all that mattered.

We completed our first year, filled with learning , celebrations and happiness.  As we made plans for our second year, the dreaded budget cuts ensued.  I was not a permanent teacher, I lost my job; the fabulous  unit coordinator  lost her job and other staff was shifted around.  Staff excessed from other schools would be assigned in September.  What a terrible way to  end a glorious year of growth for students and staff alike.

As luck would have it, I was called back to my job at the end of September.  (This would happen for another 2 years until I became  a permanent  teacher.)   Like in most schools, there were personnel changes, some for the better, some for the worse.   At times things were difficult.   For me, what was  never difficult was to stay focused on the mission of the school, to increase social skills and teach functional academics to make our students as independent as possible.  It made sense.

Over the next 30 years, the location of the school changed.  The name of the school changed.  The population of the school changed.  The  focus on academics changed.  The edicts from the various chancellors changed.   I remained with the school but my role and title changed.  The wording of our mission and vision statement changed.  What did not change was my belief in what  the school stood for or my passion for the school, it’s students, staff and parents and  of course, my commitment to being a trailblazer.  Throughout my career, I carried with me (and tweaked) the lessons that I learned in 1975 and am proud that I always was and still am a trailblazer.  Keeping focused on doing the right thing for my students made it so much easier.   Then came directives from the  last chancellor, via the district superintendent, that I knew were not educationally sound for my students.  I found words coming out of my mouth that were their beliefs, not mine.  I was lucky, I had the age and years to retire so I wouldn’t have to continue to spew or implement what I knew was wrong.  Making the decision to retire was not an easy one. I loved my school and what it had become but after  so many years in the field, compromising my beliefs was unthinkable.  So I decided retirement was the right choice for me.  And when I left my school for the last time, I walked out with my head held high, hoping that my passion for the school, it’s students, staff and parents helped to make an impact on their lives.  I know that it made an impact on mine.