Three Seacoast region schools that serve students with a range of special needs rose to the challenge of addressing these unique educational needs through remote learning this spring. Through trials and individualized efforts to keep kids connected and to be active learners, teachers, administrators and families rose to the challenge. The staff at these schools – Birchtree Center in Newington, Learning Skills Academy in Rye and Monarch School of New England in Rochester – will apply what they learned and best practices in fall plans to support these students in times where many unknowns still exist.
The Birchtree Center focuses on serving students from Pre-k through grade 12 who have autism and severe challenges with communications and behavior. The Learning Skills Academy serves about 60 children in grades 3-12 with learning disabilities, speech language impairments and other health impairments. As a result of these disabilities, many cannot read well. The Monarch School of New England serves children who have multiple disabilities from age 5-21 year-round. All three schools are members of the NH Private Special Education Association.
Birchtree students are referred from regional school districts so they can benefit from the specialized staff that provide multiple in-school supports. Each student has an individualized educational program (IEP). Like all schools across the state, they had to rapidly move to remote learning in mid-March.
“Our families and staff are heroes! In March, we moved our individualized approach from our school to students’ homes and our staff worked closely with families to figure out what types of instruction would work best for each student and family. Some students did best when we mailed instructional materials home. Other students really enjoyed working with instructors, therapists and staff through video conferencing. We also created individualized online classes for every student, so that students could do coursework, watch how-to videos created by our staff, view videos of our staff reading books, and engage in virtual field trips relevant to the curriculum,” said Jessica Squier, the school’s director of development and community relations.
To quickly prepare for online learning, the staff scrambled to put together learning kits for each student. The 20-gallon bags were stuffed with individualized learning materials that also included yoga mats, on loan iPads and even toothbrushes and toothpaste in some cases. Classes resumed quickly through Google Classroom, while regular tele-therapy with students, family members and a therapist allowed for continuity of speech-language pathology and occupational therapy services.
“Parents were real rock stars. We took a look at the goals for each student’s IEP and created a checklist with activities to practice core skills. For example, if a student had toothbrushing in their IEP at school and we were working with them on that step by step, we put toothbrushing as an activity for home. Parents would check that off and let our team know. As a result, some families found that kids could do much more than they realized,” Squier said.
The high level of family involvement was critical during the spring. In some cases, older siblings stepped in to help with remote learning. In addition, having students spend so much time at home gave them opportunities to work on home and community-based activities to apply their learning. Examples include doing laundry and house cleaning. One student was able to do their first ever family hike this spring after overcoming challenges of behaving safely in the community. Some nonverbal kids who had learned to use picture symbols to communicate were able to transfer these skills to the home for the first time.
“This spring, we used guidance from state and federal agencies to develop a detailed plan for re-opening and returned to in-person instruction in small student cohorts on July 6 with a focus on promoting student and staff health and safety. We are also providing home-based services, remote instruction and consultation as needed. It’s such a joy to see students face-to-face again,” Squier said.
Learning Skills Academy
In Rye, staff at the Learning Skills Academy leaned on their six years of experience of creating and using “blizzard bags” for remote learning when the students could not be on site due to storms or other issues. The school serves 32 school districts, has a class size that does not exceed seven and has always done a lot of one-on-one tutorials for their students, who struggle with reading and math.
“Maintaining a schedule once we were online was critical. We monitored the schedule weekly so kids were not overwhelmed by too many Google Meets with their peers. If a student was struggling, we created extra one-on-one connections for that student. Over time, we found that consistent and constant communications with teachers and administrators helped us keep our students on track,” said Karen Elrod Staines, the school’s executive director.
One challenge was to replicate the popular Adventurelore program that occurred every other Friday. Through the program, a team of counselors and outdoor educators would take the students biking, hiking, ocean kayaking and on other lifelong leisure activities. When the school went remote, teachers emphasized the need to continue this type of activity at home.
“We tried to not rely too much on the need for families to teach their child, creating assignments that students could complete independently or with the teacher with whom they were meeting. One of the teachers created outdoor activities for kids so they could get away from the computer, such as building a model house or creating a science experiment,” Staines said.
One teacher told the story of the journey of one student through remote learning. This student couldn’t imagine the discipline and motivation that would be necessary for him to succeed at remote learning, especially over such a long period of time. With severe ADHD and other learning challenges, he wanted to “exit this scene” from the very beginning, convinced that failure was the most probable option. Just getting out of bed was overwhelming, let alone keeping a daily schedule and organizing classwork.
“Our team leapt into action, scheduling one-on-one instructional Google Meets, checking in several times a day, creating and tweaking checklists and daily goals, and even making morning wake-up calls. It would take an army, but the student quickly realized that failure was not an option. He joined the team, and with tons of support and encouragement, he will soon graduate, having not only completed all his assignments, but done so with proficiency and pride,” said Mary Harb, an English and Language Arts teacher at the school.
Additional high notes over the spring included the Meets, so students could connect with their classmates. Virtual pool parties run by families and a “Johnny’s dance party” were other highlights. But graduation was the true culmination. The whole upper school staff of 20 drove a total of 275 miles to go to each of the families’ houses and present a diploma. While the parents were aware, it was a complete surprise for the kids.
“It was powerful,” Staines said.
The Monarch School serves students with severe intellectual, physical, medical and developmental disabilities through a year-round, 200-day school year. The school focuses on recognizing students’ abilities, not disabilities and they place a heavy emphasis on academics in combination with innovative therapies and flexible, adaptable and portable programming, which includes community integration for work based learning and recreational opportunities that are a part of life in the “real world.”
Moving fully online created challenges for parents and school staff. “Through the remote period, we basically ‘invaded their homes’ through Zoom, but through built up trust, and by making sure the students had what they needed at home, parents accepted us into their homes with hands on partnership in their students educational and therapeutic programming,” said Kate Sisneroz, director of education at the Monarch School.
School staff provided assistance with technology. They sought out professional development to help with online teaching skills and tapped national resources for content and best practices. As a result, there has been more creativity and out-of-the box thinking applied to the learning processes. This included making chores such as loading a dishwasher or feeding pets examples of applied learning – things that could not be done in the classroom. Families benefitted by witnessing this learning in their households.
“Some parents had no idea how capable their kids were until they saw them in action. They called it the silver lining. When teachers sent home packets of information and work, parents were surprised at how much their child could do. Students became more independent with vocational skills with chores around the house. It really was a silver lining coming out of remote learning for both the parents and students,” Sisneroz added.
Back in March, some students thought they could not be successful doing remote learning. However, technology – and many students’ familiarity with the tools – helped make academics and therapy fit into this delivery system.
“It is humbling to remember that our children are open and creative. We have learned a lot about putting mental health much more in the forefront. Everyone stepped up. Therapists previously integrated services into multiple community activities such as aquatics, hippotherapy and gymnastics but when we went remote, staff became more adaptive. The therapists used creativity and collaboration to work on student’s goals and objectives in meaningful and data driven ways showing in some cases increased growth towards goals. Getting greater results because of being stretched has changed what we do. We were pushed to create more robust programs because kids are capable of handling them,” said Diane Bessey, executive director of the Monarch School.
The several months of remote learning have and will continue to be a learning experience for these kids, families, teachers and administrators as plans continue to flex this fall. New and closer connections with some family members have been an unexpected benefit at all three schools. Safety will be the top concern, but best practices that have helped kids with special needs to stay engaged and keep learning will be employed to help maintain a high level of engagement.