KENWOOD — Seven families with special needs kids have started their own school in the basement of a Kenwood synagogue as an antidote to the noisy and hectic schools in the city.
Across the street from President Barack Obama’s house, six-year-old Elliott Rings pressed his belly to a small cart and scooted across the basement classroom at City Elementary inside KAM Isaiah Israel, 1100 E. Hyde Park Blvd., to complete a math problem with one of his four teachers. He then careened back to pass the cart off to a classmate, who went clattering back across the linoleum floor.
For University of Chicago music professor Steven Rings, this was a huge advance for his son Elliott, who had struggled at the university’s Laboratory School.
Elliott is extremely gifted at math, according to his father, but his attention gets easily filled up trying to process all the chatter and moving bodies in school.
Rings said Elliott gets overwhelmed when he needs to then pile on physical activities that make him self-conscious and socially awkward interactions with other students.
“With Elliott, it was a sort shutting down and as much as he could he would go and look out the window,” Rings said.
Other parents described kids who were overwhelmed by places like the Lab School’s Earl Shapiro Hall with it’s shifting patterns and light cascading from multiple angles and chattering voices ricocheting off the walls.
“He starts laughing, giggling and shaking as he tries to keep himself from totally losing control,” said Leah Harp of her eight-year-old son who asks to be referred to as “Santa.”
Elliott and the other kids at City Elementary all have difficulty processing all the noise, patterns and other sensory inputs and get easily distracted or overwhelmed in the bustling and crowded atmosphere of any normal school.
On Monday, Rings and Harp were debating what to do about a blue zigzag line in the bathroom and a soft hum from the fan.
“For a kid who’s struggling to hold it together and overwhelmed by sensory input, being drawn to that stripe is too much and they can lose focus on what they’re supposed to be doing, which is going to the bathroom,” Rings said, regretting that he may have to undo the custodian’s painstaking paint job.
Some of the kids at City Elementary have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, others with sensory integration disorders and some have had no formal diagnosis. But all of them require a lot of structure and attention from very flexible and attentive teachers able to react to how a kid is coping with a particular situation.
“It’s a need that’s not being met in the public schools because of the class size,” said Lorell Marin, founder of Leep Forward, a preschool at 1280 W. Washington Blvd. that works with kids with sensory integration issues.
Marin has been providing speech and occupational therapy to the students at City Elementary twice a week. She said most schools just don’t have the flexibility to respond to each individual student's strong reaction to a particular stimulus.
“You can’t just create this schedule today and think that it will work tomorrow,” Marin said.
The hope is that by middle school, many of the City Elementary kids will be able to be able move back into a more typical school environment.
“They’re actually going to be physically healing because they’re in this safe space,” Harp said.
She said her son has opened up because the teachers encouraged him to start interacting with the other students through his passion for trains, rather than cocooning himself in his passion when he felt overwhelmed.
“It’s all about encouraging them to come into our world that we share rather than retreat into their particular focus,” Harp said.
She said the school would expand with a grade each year until it hits fifth grade.
“If we don’t find a middle school we like for them, we will start a middle school,” Harp said.
The school is currently breaking even, but is looking for ways to offer scholarships to ease the burden of the $20,000 tuition.
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