A school in suburban Chicago is helping families, not just teaching students

A school in suburban Chicago is helping families, not just teaching students
Alan B. Shepard School. Photo credit: Bourbonnais School District #53

“Mr. Schneider, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the teachers at Alan Shepard. I have twin boys with special needs, and they are my biggest support,” a mother wrote to me last week. I decided to look into the story further and discovered this is not an isolated sentiment about the school. In a time where institutions are often impersonal, there is a much different approach to students Alan B. Shepard Elementary School sixty miles south of downtown Chicago, in Bourbonnais, IL.

Autism is on the rise in America. In the 1970s, one in 2000 children displayed symptoms on the Autism Spectrum. Today, the Centers for Diseases Control (CDC) estimates that one in every 150 8-year-olds fall somewhere on the spectrum. The disorders can range from Asperger’s Syndrom to a condition known as pervasive developmental disorder.

What factors are causing the increases in the United States? Experts disagree on whether the condition is growing, or if it is just a matter of semantics. A study by two researchers in England shed light on the debate. They studied autism rates for children born between 1992 and 1995 in the same area of England. Then expanded the study to children born from 1995 to 1998. They found the rate to be stable.

That is contrary to the experience in America where the rates have grown steadily since the 1970s. Gary Goldstein, MD, president and CEO of Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, a facility that helps children with autism and other developmental disorders, said that “Getting to the cause, or more accurately the causes of autism will be more difficult than unraveling the causes of cancer.”

In the meantime, schools are working with new approaches to address students who fall on the spectrum. Isolating students with special needs was a technique from the past. I spoke with Dr. Daniel Hollowell, Superintendent of Bourbonnais School District #53 about his special needs program which begins with preschool.

“We don’t belong to a countywide program that puts kids with special needs in isolation,” Dr. Hollowell told me. “We work with the family as a unit, not just the children.”

The school runs screening programs three times a year, once in the spring, summer, and fall, to identify students at risk. Students at risk enter the program as early as preschool.

Rather than isolating students, blended classrooms bring students together in a single class. Each mixed class consists of 20 students, with a teacher and a teaching assistant.

Blending the special needs students with students from the general population benefits both groups of students. For the children with special needs, there is a peer role model in the classroom. For the children without special needs, the lessons are on accepting others with unique challenges and learning empathy for others.

Teachers Bonnie Welker and Christina Terrell, along with Physical Therapist Linda Wyss, Occupational Therapist Tammy Deschand, and speech Therapist Allison Latham, provide students with individual attention to work to improve motor and speech skills. A school psychologist works with the parents and the family with the effort becoming holistic that serves the entire family.

For Theresa Fritz and her twins, it is a program that works. “More than anything, they just listen,” Mrs. Fritz told me, They don’t judge, and they offer support and when they can, the offer advice.” The benefits of the program are not limited to the kids, “They have helped me understand my children as they are. In return, I’ve done the same for myself.”

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