October 08, 2015
Cards displaying the letters of the alphabet encircle the freshly-painted classrooms at the new NHS School St. Anne’s in Port Richmond. Cubby holes overflow with crayons and glue and paint. Tiny desks are arranged in tidy rows.
But a closer look reveals a host of unfamiliar items. Therapeutic putty. Body socks. Stretchy bands. These are the toys and tools used to calm agitated kids.
That’s because St. Anne's is the 19th NHS autism school to open in Pennsylvania, as part of NHS Human Services, a nonprofit founded in Philadelphia in 1969 that now serves 50,000 children and adults nationwide.
“Public schools lack the specialized services and individualized treatment that kids like these need,” says Rebecca Mann, vice president of operations. The most recent numbers from the Pennsylvania Autism Census Update indicate that nearly 4,000 Philadelphia children under the age of 21 receive autism services — and the numbers are rising.
The agency spent $700,000 and a year rehabbing the former parish school, which had been empty since its closing by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2011. Monies came from local grants, as well as NHS’ own operating funds, and was used for lead remediation, roof repair, installing accessible bathrooms, and sprucing up the halls and classrooms.
“It’s a wonderful, iconic building for the neighborhood and it’s great to bring it back to life,” Mann says.
The school is prepared to ramp up to take in as many as 24 kids who fall along the autism spectrum and 36 who have been diagnosed as needing emotional support due to issues like attention deficit disorder or anxiety. For students in greater Center City, Mann says, the closest NHS schools were in the Northeast and Bucks County.
“With the new school, one kid’s bus ride will go down from 50 minutes to 15,” she says.
For Amanda Yost, the school means her seven-year-old daughter, Aubrey, enjoys not only a shorter commute but the one-on-one attention she wasn’t always able to receive at H.A. Brown Elementary School in Kensington. Although Aubrey was officially diagnosed as falling on the autism scale four years ago, Yost says she and her husband noticed much earlier that she didn't make eye contact and often hummed to herself as a self-soothing mechanism.
In a lot of ways, though, Aubrey, who didn’t speak until age 5, is “absolutely brilliant,” says Yost. “She never forgets an address, she knows the logos of every single car maker, things like that. But she can have trouble tying her shoes, she repeats herself when she talks, and she can become overwhelmed by lights or sounds.”
Nevertheless, like many parents, the Yosts had to undergo a lengthy and complicated process to obtain a Notice of Recommended Placement, which legally binds the city’s school district to pay for the child’s education at an approved private school such as those operated by NHS.
“The public schools know they can’t handle these kids,” Yost says. “And places like NHS are ready to step in. But something in the middle just isn’t working. It should be easier to make the transition than it is.”
A recent day at school found Aubrey intensely focused as she swirled a splash of blue paint onto a paper plate, her pale blonde hair swinging perilously close to her artwork. At the same table, a six-year-old boy gleefully squirted glue into the blob of red paint before him, while a teenager slumped nearby at a desktop computer.
In another room, 16-year-old Jewel moaned happily, throwing herself onto a huge bouncy ball as her one-on-one therapist sat by. (The school employs two full-time teachers, but also welcomes outside therapists who work with certain pupils. Every student has an IEP, or individualized education plan.)
Education Director Ryan Heiser, a former special ed teacher, watched the proceedings for a bit then turned off the recorded music that accompanied Jewel’s gyrations. Walking over to her, he held one finger in front of her face to snap her out of her reverie.
Grabbing her hand, he led her to the series of numbers pinned to the wall and encouraged her to point out “1.”
“There, she’s back in the world – and that’s a lesson, for now,” he said. “Some of our kids can sit for a normal, 45-minute lesson; for others, we have to break things into much smaller increments. We have to work our way up.”
The goal is to get everyone back into a regular school setting, he added, noting that NHS is prepared to keep pupils here until age 21. As students reach that age, the focus moves to transitioning them to college, the work world, and independent living.
“My hope for Aubrey is that she’ll be able to progress normally,” says Yost. “I’d love for her to mainstream into high school.”