I met Spencer in the fall.  His mother was desperately looking for a school for him, and I suppose was both a bit hopeful and a bit apprehensive about approaching The Academy about his educational needs.  After all, Spencer requires personal support in his classes, and our program isn’t designed to accommodate this.

Sometimes it takes a meeting like this to make you examine your own practices — an unexamined life is not worth living, right?  After hearing about the difficulty finding a suitable school for Spencer, and growing to understand more clearly his academic and social needs, I thought it might be interesting for us to stretch our boundaries a little and do something a bit disruptive: to see how a student with Spencer’s needs and the presence of a support person for him would affect our program, and, more important, to see how it might benefit Spencer.  So, during February and March, Spencer and Andrea, his support person, attended classes every Tuesday.  These were classes in Grades 9 and 10, at the Applied level.

Without a doubt, this little experiment benefited both Spencer and The Academy.  We are now exploring opening a classroom for students with similar needs, and invite families to attend our Open House on Saturday April 12 (from 11:00 to 1:00) to express their interest.

In the meantime, Spencer’s mother has written the following post for this blog, which I present with great thanks!

When we first got the Autism diagnosis for our son, Spencer, we were filled with many questions.  Will he ever have friends? Live independently? Go to overnight camp? University?  Will he ever have a career of his own?  We were met with a resounding no, by our very cold, uninformed pediatric psychologist who told us that all we could do for him was to play with him, and hope for the best for some kind of a bleak future.  Thankfully, we didnt accept this diagnosis as his prognosis, and have tried to give Spencer as many typical experiences as possible.  He travels, goes to overnight camp for six weeks of the summer and we have given him many opportunities to learn and grow with one very important roadblock in his way.  

The educational system for kids with higher needs like Spencer up until now has been sorely lacking.   In fact it is almost non-existent.  When Spencer was going into Grade One, we applied to almost every Private school in the city.  Each and every school including the ones that specialized in supporting kids with learning challenges, shut the door in our faces over and over again.  Some even brought us in for an interview, had us apply with a deposit and put Spencer through a half day integrated in the classroom.  When it came time for a decision they all said Sorry we dont take kids with one-to one support.  We truly felt hopeless and thankfully the Jewish Montossori was very accepting and took him in.  Unfortunately, it wasnt a great fit for him because it was really geared towards independent learning.  We decided that the only choice for him was to go to a school dedicated to Special Needs Kids. 

We were finally going to get the education Spencer so desperately needed .  Or so we thought.  Meanwhile, they charged us their full tuition, had us pay for our own aide in the classroom, buy our own school supplies and then threw three kids like Spencer, with three support staff into a classroom with a very inexperienced teacher who gave them colouring sheets with an A and an apple as their daily work, had them sing the alphabet and put Barney videos on throughout the day.  This was grade 5? I am pretty sure we spent almost $100,000 for that year of school.   Needless to say this was not the place for Spencer.  He is a very smart kid with tons of potential but up until then, the private school system had failed him.

We decided that the only route we could take was Public School.  After all, they are mandated to teach him.  He has been there for three years and he is still quite behind in almost all areas.  There was little specialized teaching to meet his strengths and needs, and as a result very little demonstrated growth and learning.  We had to supplement with after school tutoring every day in order to teach him some of the necessary concepts to get him ready for High School next year.  

This is where it starts to get real.  We cant afford to waste the next years in a babysitting program.  We need to think of his future.  The next school will be the training ground that will help to determine the path he takes as a young adult.  He needs a school that will not only work on life and social skills but will give him the academics in a structured yet nurturing environment.  A school that knows how to reach and motivate kids like Spencer. 

I searched the internet for High Schools for Special Needs Teens and came across a school called the YMCA Academy, located in the downtown YMCA at 15 Breadalbane Street.  On paper the school seemed ideal.  Each student works on a laptop, job skills and prep are taught, they have work co-op programs, career and life skills counselling, small class sizes, applied and academic courses and once finished you can actually walk away with a high school diploma or a certificate of accomplishment.  It looked too good to be true.  I called anyways, even though I was prepared to hear the answer I have heard most of Spencers life, but what I got instead threw me.  Don Adams, the head of the school was intrigued.  Can you believe that?  He was actually intrigued by the possibility of including someone like Spencer in their school.  He invited me to come in and meet with him to talk further about Spencer and how this would work within the existing parameters of their school.  He was in, I mean really in.  I was floored.  I had never ever in all twelve years since his diagnosis heard those words before.  He wanted to meet Spencer and really see this through. 

He met Spencer, stims and all, and offered to have him come in once a week and partake in the curriculum to see if it was a good fit for us.  The trial run was successful and even though Spencer didnt fit the model of the kids that typically attend the Y Academy, Don was willing to make it work.  Not only that, he was excited about the possibility of having Spencer and kids like him attend his school.   He is now opening up a classroom for kids who need more support and will teach a modified locally developed program for kids with Autism.   Don Adams and The YMCA Academy are willing to push the boundaries of their comfort zone and do what most others refuse to do, be inclusive.  Hopefully, they will lead the way for others to start broadening their definition of special needsin the Private School system and help these kids reach their full potential.

A Little Experiment