This past Friday I had the pleasure of visiting The Center For Discovery, a New York State-approved private school for children with various kinds of developmental disabilities. I had been vaguely familiar with the program for some time but I became deeply interested in learning more about it after speaking with a colleague who had said that they were doing similar things as the Ann Sullivan Center was doing in Peru (see http://blog.dayanlawfirm.com/2013/12/reflections-on-peru.html). So I contacted the school and set up a visit.
You may remember that Friday was the day of the fog. For much of the close to two-hour-drive up to Monticello, I was looking out at a wall of whiteness. I was surrounded by snowy mountains, snow on the ground, and an intense, consuming fog that all seemed to blend into one. The road was quiet. The visibility on the road was awful. Many times the road disappeared, and I changed lanes to get behind a car that I could follow closely because I figured as long as I could see the car that meant there was still road. Once I got over the initial shock of the daunting driving conditions, I began to appreciate the stark beauty. The bright white and bare trees created a somewhat eerie but incredibly peaceful landscape which I said I would describe as "fantastical" if others asked. I felt myself breathing in the beauty of my surroundings by inhaling them through the air vents on the dashboard. My senses felt heightened and I kept myself from turning on the radio because I didn't want to ruin the moment. Though my day had only barely started, I was feeling very glad to be making this trip.
I arrived at The Center For Discovery around 10 a.m. The school grounds cover 1,500 acres of land with various campuses, which are set up thoughtfully to meet the unique needs of the students housed at each campus. For example, a campus intended for children with autism was expertly designed by none other than Temple Grandin whose goal was to construct the campus in a way that was sensitive to the sensory needs of its students, as children with autism can become easily overwhelmed by light, sound, and smell. I also saw a kitchen that was tailor-made for individuals in wheelchairs such that all of the kitchen equipment could be adjusted higher or lower according to the student's height. The school primarily serves individuals aged 5-21, who, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, may be entitled to funding for the cost of the program. The Center also serves individuals above the age of 21, but as a general rule, those individuals would need to obtain funding through Medicaid and the Office of People With Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD). The oldest individual currently enrolled is 85 years old.
The Center began in the 1940s as an institution for the education of individuals with cerebral palsy but gradually evolved to include students with a range of issues including autism and multiple physical handicaps. The Center For Discovery, like the Ann Sullivan Center, emphasizes functional education, rather than rote learning of academics that may have limited practical application in the real world. Students learn hands-on by participating in a panoply of activities including gardening, cooking, dancing, farming, and working in the Center's on-site restaurants and cafes that are designed to teach important skills. During these activities, students receive ongoing support from school staff which focuses on teaching important skills necessary to function in the real world and aims to prepare students for an eventual transition to a less supportive educational setting or, where possible, an appropriate work environment tailored to the specific interests and abilities of the particular student. The Center is primarily a full-time residential program, which means that the students live on campus 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with some exceptions for family visits and vacations. To a lesser degree, the Center functions as a day program for students who are bussed from nearby districts. There are currently about 500 total students in the two programs. There are about 1,500 staff members including teachers, psychologists, social workers, related service providers, behavior specialists, and "integration specialists." Classrooms typically consist of 6 students and approximately 3 staff members. Students are grouped according to their needs and abilities. Reverse inclusion provides mainstreaming opportunities for students to interact with typically developing peers from the community through sporting activities and other opportunities to socialize and mingle.
The Center For Discovery has a research arm in addition to the hands-on instructional program described above. Partnering with different institutions around the country, the Center is actively pursuing answers to questions concerning effective approaches to the education and development of individuals with disabilities. The Center is active internationally by participating in conferences around the world concerning various special education topics. The Center also conducts assessments and evaluations to help families better understand what supports and interventions are necessary for their children to make meaningful gains. The Center also works closely with local school districts through staff trainings and workshops, which has allowed the Center to extend its reach to help students outside of its own program. The Center is working on plans for expansion in order to make its services available to a wider population.
I would like to thank the wonderful people at The Center For Discovery who welcomed me warmly and spent over three hours showing me around, discussing their amazing program, and sharing a glimpse of some of the very exciting things that they have planned for the near future. Thank you for the fantastic work that you do, and good luck with your new endeavors!
For more information about The Center For Discovery, visit the school's website: