Education is rarely a one-size-fits-all discipline, especially among the special needs population. Luckily for individuals with disabilities, the Baltimore area has a variety of schools, agencies and programs that offer education, training and other help that can be tailored toward specific needs.
One such program is Friendship Circle run by Rabbi Chaya Sufrin out of Chabad of Clarksville. With more than 79 locations worldwide, the program boasts 5,000 children and close to 11,000 volunteers. Its approach brings together teenage volunteers with children with special needs, primarily those with autism.
The organization’s largest program is called Friends at Home. Each child enrolled in the program is matched with a pair of teenage volunteers. These teens visit and play with the children at their homes or take them out to participate in fun activities within the community.
“The teens themselves go in thinking that they’re giving,” according to Rabbi Sufrin, “but they don’t think about how much they gain in return. They get to go with a friend and end up seeing the bigger picture.” Volunteers appreciate the program as much as participants, Sufrin said.
Local schools also do their part to cater to the needs of specific students. For example, the Jemicy School and the Odyssey School, located in Owings Mills and Stevenson, respectively, both focus on the needs of students with dyslexia and other language-based learning difficulties.
According to Jemicy’s mission statement, “the school utilizes creative, multisensory and research-based programs and techniques to develop reading, writing, spelling and organization skills.” In a similar vein, the educators at Odyssey “work as a team to understand the specific language and learning needs of the individual child and to tailor a personalized program to meet those needs.”
As the largest provider of mental health care in Maryland, the Sheppard Pratt Health System is actively involved in special education. The Health System includes 12 schools with a total of 17 special education programs. Its website claims to serve nearly 700 students with special needs, more than 50 percent of whom have been diagnosed with autism.
The more personalized curriculums offered through special needs programs result in churning out graduates who are prepared for the work force.
Jim Truscello is director of day school programming for the Health System’s special education services. “We enact a transition plan in eighth grade so they are job ready,” he explained. “The hardest thing is to get them to pass the tests necessary to graduate from high school.” These tests are based on measures such as mathematical ability, reading comprehension and writing ability.
“Their learning style just doesn’t match how the public schools teach,” Jim said. This mindset in regard to the style of teaching is prevalent in the world of special education. Earlier this year, Melanie Hood-Wilson, director of special populations at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC), shared that “we teach our courses in a way that is less traditional, less paper-pencil work, fewer lectures … we make sure [students] are getting all the rigor that’s necessary, but we deliver it in a way that’s accessible.”
CCBC further expands upon the basic skill sets, which these students develop throughout middle and high school with its Single Step program. The program is geared to engage adults with disabilities in both academic and general studies with the goal being to prepare individuals for independent living and employment.
The Single Step program features several tracks of study that students can follow. One option is for individuals to choose a career certification track, which will allow them to emerge from the school system with tailored skills aimed at a specific industry. There are preparatory tracks for jobs as a child care assistant, technician, security guard and animal care worker to name a few.
Other students are working toward their associate’s degree or are simply taking classes for enjoyment, learning skills that interest them or are necessary real-world skills such as computer programming and personal finance.
The more personalized curriculums offered through special needs programs result in churning out graduates who are prepared for the work force, which many enter with the aid of free vocational services offered by local health systems.
For example, the Sheppard Pratt Health System — through Mosaic Community Services — assists clients with finding employment based on the interests of the employee as opposed to specialized experience.
Sinai Hospital and LifeBridge Health provide a range of services to clients, offering a general vocational services program. Additionally, the system provides explicitly Jewish vocational services through Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital, where volunteers with special needs come regularly in the company of coaches to help with tasks around the hospital.
The Arc Baltimore is partnered with LifeBridge Health and Northwest Hospital. The organization’s website states, “The Arc [provides] employment training and support, day and residential services, family support and education, treatment foster care, respite care, public policy advocacy and information and referrals,” all aimed at individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.
Jewish Community Services (JCS), an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, also offers career advising and training. Sherri Sacks, a career coach at JCS, explained that their main goal is to “tailor placement to what a person needs,” be it transitioning from high school to college or seeking employment in the real world.