This fall marks the start of the first school year under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the first with expanded universal pre-K, and, for four city schools, the first time they’ll participate in a growing program to integrate students with autism into their classes.
These four schools will join 28 others taking part in the ASD Nest program 10 years after Chancellor Carmen Fariña, then superintendent of a district in Brooklyn, first helped to develop its pilot program.
“I have had principals begging me to start Nest programs in their schools,” Fariña told more than 400 teachers, counselors, and speech and occupational therapists who were gathered at the United Federation of Teachers headquarters on Wednesday. “I had to recruit them, I had to beg them, and now everybody wants it.”
The workshop was part skill-sharing exercise and part morale-booster for the Nest program, which is expanding to Tottenville High School, P.S. 316, The Lab School High School, and the High School of Telecommunications Arts and Technology next year and already involves 900 students with autism and 3,000 other students. Still, the program is just one aspect of a sprawling special education system that Fariña oversees. (Last year there were more than 10,000 students with autism in city schools.)
The Nest model includes small, mixed classes of students with autism and other students run by two co-teachers who participate in ongoing training. At some schools, the program has proved popular enough that some parents of general education students request those classes for their children.
Nest also encourages organized, structured classrooms to limit distractions and overstimulation for students with autism. The program’s architects suggest that teachers get rid of unnecessary furniture that might clutter a room, and organize their whiteboards in predictable ways where students can find homework and announcements in the same places every day. Each student also has access to a self-imposed “time out” place where they can go when they feel overwhelmed, like a bean-bag chair in a corner of a classroom.
For teachers preparing to start the program for the first time, the conference also raised some questions about how the model will work at large, established schools.
At the workshop, Lori Bracco, who teaches ninth-grade social studies at the 4,000-student Tottenville High School, said she was worried about how her school will be able to incorporate consistent standards in place across classrooms next year as it starts the program.
“Not only do the students move around [during the day], but the teachers move around,” Bracco told sixth-grade teacher Carol Lewis during a breakout session. How would she be able to create an orderly classroom environment without complete control of the room?
“It’s what you say and how you say it,” Lewis responded, noting that her first year was daunting, too.
“I was scared,” Lewis said. “Our concern was how the general education students would handle it.”
Her fears diminished, she said, when she saw that both the general and special education students were benefiting from an environment set up to focus on what each student could accomplish.
Still, it’s lot to process for some, including Theila Smith, who is preparing to start her first year as a teacher at M.S. 447 teaching seventh and eighth-grade science.
“I’ve read so many books this summer,” Smith said as she plugged in her laptop and kept working during a lunch break at the workshop. Even with the support, she said, “It’s a little overwhelming.”