Schools to Celebrate- Autism Inclusion in Harlem

New York City has a great program for autism inclusion in its district schools.  Thing was, there wasn’t one in Harlem.  We helped change that.

While folks often see charters as modeling practices for the District, we stole the District’s model and put in a charter.  And it’s working.

It all started over steak-frites.  A friend and longtime education reform advocate, introduced me to a lawyer, who worked with special education students seeking private placements.  They both saw an acute need for better services for atypical learners, particularly those on the autism spectrum in Harlem.

These were smart, committed, empathetic and steely-eyed women.  I knew this could happen, and our charter incubator program was all in.

At first, we were told that there were not as many autistic elementary students in Harlem—which technically is true.  It takes roughly 10K to get assessed.  As one of the founders stated in a Daily News Article

While the average age for identifying cases of high-functioning and mild autism ranges from three to four in upper and middle class families, the diagnosis comes closer to age eight in low income areas.

“Statistically, low income and minority kids are diagnosed later because it’s more of a subtle diagnosis,” said Soussloff. “But the later your child starts to get services, the worse off they are.”

Parents needed this, it matters for their children.  And beyond just recruiting kids, the founders went to dozens of meetings to help underserved preschool parents understand some of the early signs of autism, and also to connect them with testing.

They put together a great team, drawing from experts on autism, and developed a great plan.  After one failed application, we were approved.  The Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem opened in 2012 and it is doing great.

They brought on a very strong principal with 10 years of DoE experience.  The educational experience was meticulously designed to support and integrate, but not overload students, and to have a variety of environments within each class to meet differing needs.  You can see more about the program here

It was beautiful to see.  You just saw kids, positively relating with adults and each other, engaged in learning and having fun. In most all cases you would be hard pressed to tell who the spectrum kids were.

Staff were well trained, supported, and they were invested in reaching every child.  Here’s a video of staff getting kids ready for the test.  Something that could be very stressful is decompressed and made fun.  And the kids killed the tests.

Despite having a larger share of special education students, the school far exceeds the District City and State

  • 79% of NCSH 3rd graders are proficient in math (Level 3+Level 4), compared to 20% in District 5 and 39% in New York City.
  • 53% of NCSH 3rd graders are proficient in ELA (Level 3+Level 4), compared to 16% in District 5 and 30% in New York City.
  • NCSH 3rd graders scored in the top 10% of charter schools city-wide.

And check out the kids.

But none of this happened by accident.  It took visionary and selfless founders, great staff and families.  It also took a supportive NYC department of education (shocking in the current context I know, who would think the DoE would willingly help charters serving underserved kids).

So many things go wrong with schools, even with the best intentions, it’s great to see Neighborhood Charter of Harlem prospering, and thinking of replicating.  Ahem,  funders…

And while the test scores are great, there is something much more important happening there.  Equity talk is being walked, and children who often are left by the wayside are picked up and supported in finding their own stride.

And this is something everyone should applaud and learn from, charter or district.

What do you think?

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