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Inclusive UWS School for Special-Needs and Typical Learners Expands

By Emily Frost | November 26, 2012 7:40am

UPPER WEST SIDE — The Ideal School of Manhattan, which began in 2006 as an experiment in fully integrating special-needs students with typical learners, is expanding rapidly — thanks to parents and educators who hope to create a new model for teaching students of all abilities.

Students recently moved from their original West 76th Street location to a six-floor building twice as large on West 91st Street at West End Avenue. The Head of School, Angela Bergeson, said she thinks they'll "outgrow [the new] space more quickly than we thought" as it transitions from K-5 to K-8.

The vision for the school stemmed from the challenges a group of New York City moms with special-needs students faced while looking for kindergartens.

Michelle Smith and Audra Zuckerman said they had no trouble getting their sons, both of whom have Down syndrome, into preschool. But when it came time for elementary school, Zuckerman said some public schools stated bluntly, "Your child is not welcome here."

Other schools were gentler, but admitted essentially, "'Your child can come here, but there are 35 kids in a classroom, and it's not going to be a great situation,'" Zuckerman recounted. 

Neither the reception nor the options were much better in the private-school world, the mothers found. 

Rather than despair or move out of the city, as other parents with special-needs children in their circle were doing, Smith and Zuckerman convened a group of educators to discuss creating an inclusive school that would house both typical learners and those with special needs. 

They encountered a tremendous amount of skepticism from all sides, including educators in the special-needs community, Smith said. People who heard the idea said it was well-intentioned but that "'it will never work,'" she said.

"We encountered pushback from the special-ed community, too," said Bergeson. "They said, 'You have to pick one thing and tailor a particular program for a particular need'" — instead of The Ideal School's model, in which students with all kinds of needs would be in the same classroom. 

Bergeson, who has been head of the school since the beginning, embraced the new model and created the school together with Smith, Zuckerman and a couple of other families.

The idea took a lot of fundraising and hard work, according to its founders. "Inclusion," Bergeson said, "is a hard sell and it's very expensive."

Tuition costs $55,000 a year for special-needs students and $34,000 for typical learners. 

In 2006, The Ideal School welcomed its inaugural class of 20 students. It now has 105 students, with around 43 percent receiving tuition assistance. 

"We don't want to be 'the rich kids,'" Smith noted.

Bergeson said she sees the school's focus on inclusion as a continuation of the civil-rights movement. The school values diversity of all kinds — from learning abilities to race, culture and religion. The student body is 37 percent Caucasian, 27 percent African American, 18 percent Latino, 15 percent multiracial and 3 percent Asian.

Bergeson said the diversity of the students — plus the small class sizes, and added training and professional development of the teachers — combines "the best of public schools and the best of private schools." 

"If you get people in the door," Bergeson said, "they get it."

Each class has a special-education teacher and a teacher for typical learners, with additional therapists regularly joining activities to advise teachers and guide students.

"It's a luxury to have a special educator in the room," Smith said. "The gift of it is that [the teacher] finds the 'specialness' in every kid and brings it out."

Bergeson said the school focuses on social justice, as well as appreciating and respecting differences.

There are lots of movement- and creativity-focused classes at the school, which often get cut first when budgets are tightened at public schools, Bergeson said. Additionally, each student learns sign language, Mandarin and Spanish.

The larger building, which the school owns, allows for much more flexibility in classes like yoga and chess, as well as accommodating a range of mobility issues. 

To balance the differing needs of the students, lessons — especially in math and literacy — are individualized. Teachers lead small groups at various levels and hold one-on-one sessions in adjoining classrooms. The school works hard to make sure students do not feel stigmatized for receiving different levels of attention, or for attending speech or occupational therapy, Bergeson explained. 

As it expands — by adding middle-school classes next year to complete the original vision — educators from around the world are taking notice, Bergeson said. 

"Guests visit from all over," including China and Armenia, she said. "And there's talk of replicating our model in other boroughs."