Merrimack County Schools Go the Extra Mile to Best Serve Students with Special Needs

Two Merrimack County schools that serve students with a range of special needs rose to the challenge of addressing these unique educational needs through remote instruction this spring. Through trials and individualized efforts to keep students connected and be active learners, teachers, administrators and families went the extra mile. The staff at these schools – NFI North Contoocook School in Contoocook and Spaulding Academy & Family Services in Northfield – will apply what they learned and best practices into fall plans to support these students in times where many unknowns still exist.

NFI North Contoocook School

NFI North serves students in grades’ 6-12 with specific emotional and learning needs (ED, OHI, SLD and Autism). Faculty and students work within a positive peer culture to develop skills that help them achieve success—in school, at work, in their families and, whenever possible, in their public or sending school system. Spaulding Academy & Family Services provides services for children and youth ages 4 to 21 with neurological, emotional, behavioral, learning and/or developmental challenges, including Autism Spectrum Disorder and those who have experienced significant trauma, abuse or neglect. Services include academic, residential, clinical, community based, foster care and family support. Both schools are members of the NH Private Special Education Association.

NFI North is a small school that works with students that are referred from many different schools across the region that cover significant geography. When they were notified that they needed to move to remote learning in mid-March, they focused on developing a plan that would meet each student’s specific educational needs while dealing with the tactical issues of determining what technological resources were available or lacking in the homes, where remote learning would be taking place.

“Everyone was so spread out across the state. To make sure everyone had what they needed required a lot of collaboration with many stakeholders. I give all the credit to our teachers. I asked them on a Sunday afternoon to come in on Monday to figure out how it was going to work. By 9 am Monday, they had a rough sketch and were working to connect with everyone and were creating packets to mail out and send home. They were champions and I am so proud of them,” said Heidi Foisy, program director for the school.

Recognizing that each student has unique learning styles, student engagement in a remote environment was critical. One student whose big challenge was social interaction, made more academic progress with remote learning and became very excited about his accomplishments. Another student started sharing photos of birds at the feeder that he had edited. He was able to turn this new interest into a learning experience and successfully advocated for some coursework in photography that allowed him to get credit for something he was interested in.

“Our students’ ability to roll with all the changes was great. Many of them don’t normally do well with change – it throws them off. While the majority of them recognized that going to school remotely was out of their control, the actual learning was in their control and they did not let that get in the way of their schooling,” Foisy said.

Family involvement during this process was critical. From helping families assess their Internet bandwidth, computer and video streaming needs, to being able to get schoolwork. In one case, they were able to make arrangements with a sending school to provide a drop-off of schoolwork since the family did not have a computer at home and the student worked better on paper.

“It’s amazing how much the students have grown up and how they are able to have real conversations. That shared experience of something that is really difficult that we are walking through together and the support has been invaluable,” Foisy said.

The Contoocook School has opened for the fall, with students and staff in the building following safety protocols such as wearing masks and social distancing.  Training on online tools continues as well, as there is an expectation that an online component will remain. A big takeaway is that remote instruction was beneficial for some and the requirement to make the switch in March resulted in tapping into new tools that may further enhance the student’s ability to learn and grow.

Spaulding Academy & Family Services

In Northfield, the staff at Spaulding Academy & Family Services faced the added complexity of continuing education on the campus for residential students while sending day-students home in March. The 150 year old school operates year-round on their 500acre campus serving over 100 students with special needs in grades K-12.

“Our biggest challenge was designing engaging remote instruction that would get the students involved and learning. We have such a diverse population. For the most part, the kids who aren’t significantly cognitively impaired did well with the remote environment, but for others, it was a bit more difficult,” said Colleen Sliva, MSEd., school principal and special education director.

The school was very fortunate to have an employee who completed training as a digital learning specialist in late 2019 and was able to help teachers migrate to remote instruction quickly. There was a lot of training and coaching to develop flexible strategies that best aligned with the students’ needs and available resources. For some lessons, teachers pulled together packets to mail home to students and then connect with the students through Zoom and Google Meet to conduct lessons face-to-face using the mailed materials. Teachers mailed science experiment materials to students so they could conduct science lessons over Zoom.

“We found that it was extremely important to connect with our students every day on video and at least weekly with family members. Many teachers said the silver lining of remote instruction was developing deeper relationships with the families. That was wonderful,” Sliva said.

The social, emotional status of the students was also a very high priority and concern. All related services such as counseling, speech, occupational and physical therapy became remote. Teachers increased their availability and made extra efforts to praise and celebrate the students’ accomplishments. This team effort produced excellent results and maintained learning and growth opportunities for the students.

“Some parents stood out as being all-stars through this period by working with teachers on strategies and implementing them with their kids. The school wrote parent thank you notes for the parents that were going above and beyond to make the new model work. Gift packages were sent with the notes to celebrate parents. It was a wonderful learning opportunity for the students, parents and the staff.” Sliva said.

While fall brings uncertainty with it, the educational programming at Spaulding Academy will build from lessons learned in the spring. Students returned to Spaulding for in person instruction with an abundance of safety precautions in place in early July. Spaulding feels well prepared for the possibility of moving back to remote education should that be required. All classrooms now have web cams, microphones and Chromebooks for every student in addition to the existing smart boards. And teachers have months of experience and training teaching remotely.

“We made fundamental changes to procedures and have remained COVID-free. For this reason, we plan to continue many of these changes as we work to offer the best educational experience possible,” Sliva said.