New Roads High School’s innovative Spectrum Program, which combines an academic curriculum and life skills for students with social-cognitive learning disabilities, such as autism, has the added value of helping the entire student body to embrace diversity, according to Nancy London, J.D., Spectrum Program Coordinator.
On Friday, May 6, students from the program teamed with students from the drama elective class and Inside Out Community Arts to perform a half-hour play they wrote and produced, which demonstrated the integration of Spectrum students into the student body.
London, whose daughter was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at an early age, said that students with autism and other social-cognitive learning disabilities often have difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication in day-to-day social interaction. In addition, they sometimes face challenges in perception, memory and judgment.
Following a frustrating search for a high school for her daughter, London, an attorney, initiated the Spectrum Program at New Roads.
“The regular school choices for kids are to either be in special education and only with special education kids, or in public school where they’re not really capable of blending into daily life,” London said.
On the advice of experts, London was determined that her daughter would continue to be exposed to positive interaction with all sorts of students, but she found that most schools focused exclusively on academics, and lacked the means of helping students develop the social skills her daughter needed to lead an independent and productive life.
London turned to Paul Cummins, founder of New Roads School. With the full support of both Cummins and David Bryan, New Roads Head of School, London developed a curriculum with Martha Jura, a clinical psychologist at UCLA and Connie Kasari, a psychological educator and researcher on autism.
In September, 2004 the Spectrum Program at New Roads enrolled its first six students.
Spectrum students attend academic classes with the rest of the student body in the mornings. In the afternoon, while other students take electives, two full-time teachers with extensive training in special education lead the Spectrum students in a specialized curriculum that focuses on social and life skills and communication training.
Music, film, movement and narratives are some of the tools the two teachers use to help their students learn how to apply classroom lessons to real life improvisational situations. Students are asked questions about narratives that are repeated and broken down.
The assumption is that reading stories, seeing films and analyzing them will help the students understand how life works and increase their ability to deal with similar situations in real life.
London said that all of the students in the Spectrum Program have made progress and are more comfortable interacting with the other students.
A weekly “workshop” with the mainstream students, and joint outings, as well as the recent play are the first steps in greater overall integration.
London and her team are now working to generate research with UCLA and hope to develop a model curriculum that public schools can use.
Three more students have signed up for the fall classes and Spectrum will offer a summer program from June 20th through July 29th.
London says that the program is the first opportunity many of the students have had to attend a bully-free school.
She advises parents of children with similar learning disabilities, “If you have any hope your kid will function in the real world, then kids need to encounter the rest of society and this is a gentle exposure, indoctrination and inclusion.”
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