The Healing Power of Love: Reconnecting With Our Higher Purpose
We welcome guest blogger Mathew Swerdloff, Executive Director of Educational Support Services in the Hendrick Hudson School District in Westchester, New York.
On my way in to the John A. Coleman School in Yonkers, NY, I noticed a small framed statement of mission hanging on the wall. Very unobtrusive, it read "In the tradition of Elizabeth Seton, we cherish all children and believe in the healing power of loving relationships..." That simple statement summed up clearly what I saw over the next few hours, and was moved to share in this piece. It was so unlike the "Mission and Vision" statements I have seen in schools across the state. Elegant in its simplicity, it articulates something we often are reluctant to say in public schools; that we are here for children, and bound by the power of love. This seemed like a fitting way to reconnect to our higher purpose as we begin another school year and face new challenges that often distract us from that focus. I hope the story offers a counterpoint to the inevitable focus on tests, rankings, APPR, and standards.
I first heard about the Coleman School from three of my graduate students in the School Building Leader program at Manhattan College. As we worked together in class over the course of a year, they often told stories about their students, and what they described was so unique, I felt that I had to visit. The Coleman School is just one of several sponsored ministries of the Sisters of Charity of New York. The Sisters sponsor the Coleman School and its affiliate organizations: the St. Elizabeth Seton Children's Foundation, the Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center and the Children's Rehabilitation Center, all located in Westchester County. Children come from all across New York State to receive medical care, skilled nursing, rehabilitation and educational services offered at these organizations.
The Coleman School has campuses in both White Plains and Yonkers, and I visited the Yonkers location this summer (schooling is year round). The campus offers top quality special needs education to children 18 months to eight years of age as part of a day program and serves the 137 resident children of the Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center who live with a wide spectrum of complex medical disabilities necessitating long-term care. Such disabilities include severe cognitive and motor delays and the need for full-time ventilator support. Most children will live at the Pediatric Center throughout their life or until the age of 21, when they will transition to an adult nursing facility. There are about 80 adult staff working in the school, with a typical ratio in a classroom of 4 adults for 6-8 children. The school has 4 full time nurses and a host of other related specialists that provide care and services during the day. After school, students return seamlessly "home" to the Pediatric Center, located in the same building as the Coleman School, where they receive round-the-clock medical, skilled nursing and rehabilitative care.
When I visited the classrooms of my three graduate students, Jamie, Allison, and Kristina, a few common characteristics stood out to me, which I think have relevance for us in K-12 public schools. They may seem obvious, but I think they are worth thinking about as we open our schools to children again this September.
- Visible Differentiation of Instruction: One size does not fit all in any classroom, but at this school, it is all too obvious that the students have very different needs. Rather than asking the student to adapt to the teacher, the reverse is true; pedagogy fits the needs of the child. This was quite obvious to me when I saw how teachers communicated with children, what materials they used, and how rooms were arranged to meet the needs of the child.
- Appropriate Use of Technology: Of the five classrooms I visited, all had a working Smartboard, but only one was being used. However, it was being used in a very appropriate and effective way to model sorting and classifying for young children. I would much rather see limited appropriate use than obligatory full use that is devoid of real educational purpose.
- The Power of Touch: Touch has become so taboo in our schools, a pat on the back is about all we can manage. At the Coleman School I saw teachers holding children, children cuddled up with adults listening to stories, and a loving acceptance of the need for touch by children who struggle every day in their physical bodies.
- Student Centered Teaching: Above all else, I saw teachers that really put the student, physically and metaphorically, at the center of their instruction. It was clear to me when I witnessed an adaptive P.E. class, or music therapy, or art, that although bound by the Common Core Standards, each student has an IEP and instruction is clearly geared to the needs of each student.
Nelson Mandela said that "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children." By that measure, the work being done at the John A. Coleman School is the best that our society can offer to those most in need. I wish us all a great year filled with work that is fulfilling and challenging, and completed in that same spirit.
Mathew Swerdloff is the Executive Director of Educational Support Services in the Hendrick Hudson School District and an Adjunct Faculty member at Manhattan College. He has been an educator in New York for over twenty years.
Photos with the permission of Sisters of Charity of New York