New TriBeCa School Serves Gifted Children With Learning Disabilities
By Julie Shapiro
TRIBECA — Teachers have never known what to do with Julien Olsson.
At 11 years old, he is acing 12th-grade math but has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and can’t sit still for more than three minutes.
Unable to find a public or private school that suited Julien’s needs, his mother Micaela Bracamonte founded The Lang School in TriBeCa this fall. The school is the first in the city to serve “twice-exceptional” children, who have high IQs coupled with learning or social disabilities.
"It was really born of frustration," Bracamonte, a Bensonhurst resident, said from her office recently. "We tear our hair out — we know how brilliant our kids are, but schools don’t know what to make of them. They are geniuses, and in one way or another they are social misfits."
Bracamonte, 46, opened the school last month with 13 children ages 6 to 11, and she is thinking about expanding to a K-12.
Lang shares a home at Reade Street and Broadway with The Quad Manhattan, a separate after-school and summer program for twice-exceptional kids that also launched this year and serves some of the same children.
Both The Lang School and Quad use methods guided by the latest research, tailored to each child’s needs.
"We’re always trying to find a way around the word ‘No,’" Bracamonte said. "One set of rules would never work for everybody. Instead of having the child adapt to the school, the school adapts to the child."
Julien, for example, is allowed to walk around the classroom, as long as he’s listening to the teacher.
"It’s just more fun than other schools," Julien said after finishing a day of classes recently.
In fact, Julien likes his new school so much, he added, "I don’t want there to be a weekend."
Dr. Kimberly Busi, a downtown psychiatrist and founder of Quad, said the key is to help students with their weaknesses by playing to their strengths.
A child who is obsessed with science but struggles with fine motor skills, for example, might have the opportunity to build a robot, learning how to hold and manipulate tools in the process.
"They’re very motivated to build the robot, so they’ll do [the parts that are challenging]," Busi said.
The Lang School requires most students to have an IQ between 125 and 145, but Quad is more open and welcomes the siblings and friends of children with special needs as well — "anyone who loves our children as much as we do," Busi said.
The school’s large classrooms include nooks for children who get overwhelmed and need a break. A sensory gym on the ground floor features a rock-climbing wall that Busi plans to use to teach students geography, by pretending the wall is a map and having students climb to different locations.
Both Quad and Lang bring in outside specialists, like psychologists and speech therapists, so the children’s diverse needs can all be satisfied under one roof.
The personalized attention does not come cheap: Tuition at The Lang School is $42,000 per year, and a semester of after-school Quad programs costs $1,050 per day.
Bracamonte said many parents hire a lawyer and seek reimbursement from the city for the cost of attending Lang, arguing that none of the city’s public school options serve their child.
On a recent afternoon, elementary children in one of Quad’s after-school classes were learning how to make flashlights.
One girl, a dark-haired 8-year-old, was so excited that she had trouble sitting down to finish the project. At last, she put the final piece of electrical tape in place and flipped the switch.
"Look at this!" she shouted, bouncing out of her chair and trotting around the room. "It’s my flashlight! I made it myself! I love this place!"
She paused, then looked up at the reporter she had just met: "Can I hug you?"
Many of the children who attend Quad and Lang have been bullied in mainstream programs, and Bracamonte said they would grow disillusioned with school if they didn’t feel challenged and understood.
Bracamonte hopes her son Julien and the other students at Lang can someday enroll in mainstream classes, perhaps in college.
"It’s a lot of work," she acknowledged at the end of a long day in the third week of school. "But when you feel that you don’t have any other choice…"
The smile on her face finished the sentence: It’s worth it.