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In a Changed Education Landscape, Stephen Gaynor School Celebrates 50 Years

By Emily Frost | June 26, 2013 9:00am
 The school has been one of the city's leaders in special education.
The Stephen Gaynor School Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary
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UPPER WEST SIDE — For Daria Pizzetta's daughter Stephanie, having dyslexia didn't mean just suffering from low self esteem in school, but having a feeling that a world of activities was closed off to her.

But after a specialist told Pizzetta that her daughter, Stephanie, could miss out on activities central to her childhood, the concerned mom realized drastic measures were in order.

"'If [Stephanie] stays in a mainstream school, you will have to deal with tutors every single afternoon," Pizzetta recalled the specialist telling her. "There will be no soccer, no music, no nothing.'"

That's when the family found the Stephen Gaynor School, a private K-8 school just for children with learning disabilities at West 90th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues that serves more than 300 students.

"There are still a very limited number of schools for children with learning issues," Pizzetta said. "We were very lucky."

Fifty years ago, children with learning disabilities were considered "neurologically impaired," essentially saddled with unsolvable cognitive issues that would forever hold them back — a view the Stephen Gaynor School founders set out to change.

Now, on the school's 50th anniversary, what began as a small, two-room school for five children on the Upper East Side has evolved into a state-of-the-art school and Early Childhood Center.

Founders Miriam Michael and Yvette Siegel proved that within the right structure, children with learning difficulties can achieve greatness — a mantle taken up today by Michael's grandson, Scott Gaynor, the head of school. 

"Each [staff member] makes sure each child is challenged and supported," Gaynor said.

The school serves children with learning disabilities ranging from dyslexia to language disorders to issues with math, and who are all of average or above average intelligence. It also has a collaborative approach, which means a head and assistant teacher, as well as two learning specialists, who are all in the classroom in a team effort.

For Stephanie Pizzetta, 14, who graduated from the school this spring, that integration meant she no longer had to be regularly separated from the group as she was at her public school, her mother said. 

"She was very despondent," the mom said of Stephanie's days before the school. "She said, 'I don’t have a reading group. I go off with the reading specialist.'"

The school also aims to challenge students, Gaynor said. A student might work closely with a math specialist not because it's a weakness, but because it's an area where he or she excels, he explained.

"Our children come to school every day and work their butts off," said Gaynor, who added that the small class size, with typically no more than 11 students, means no one's slacking off in the back.

Through a robust arts program, Gaynor School ensures that students get a self-esteem boost.

"You can tell a child until you're blue in the face that they're smart, but if they don't have some level of success themselves, it bounces off them," Gaynor said. 

A majority of the eighth-graders who graduate go on to mainstream schools, a testament to the teachers, Gaynor added.

The excellence of the teachers prompted Gaynor to start a Community Learning Center at the school, where 30 first- and second-graders from nearby P.S. 84 and P.S. 166 come to Gaynor School two afternoons a week for additional reading guidance, he said.

The belief in early intervention also sparked the creation of the Early Childhood Center two years ago, in the historic carriage house the school purchased on West 89th Street. 

The 4- and 5-year-olds at the center are often children who've had issues with becoming easily distracted and keeping their bodies calm, said Donna Logue, the program's director. 

"Some of our 4-year-olds were kicked out of their preschools. You can only imagine the toll that takes on kids and parents," Logue said. "I can't tell you the number of times I've needed the tissues out when I tell [parents] they're accepted."

The center serves 53 children and has a waiting list, though Logue couldn't say how many families are on it. 

In the next few years, the Gaynor School will finish its expansion into the neighboring carriage house, building a bigger outdoor play space on the roof, a theater and a garden, among other projects. 

The physical improvements aside, Gaynor stressed the importance to the school's future of maintaining the strong familial culture, where everyone is "empowered." 

"Your child gets their life back when they go to this school," Pizzetta said.