Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Special students getting new digs

At the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in this bustling community is a school where workers coax young, uncooperative legs to walk and nurture kids with Down syndrome and autism.

For years, as politicians and lawyers debated the constitutionality of creating a public school solely for disabled Hasidic children, therapy and instruction went on undisturbed in this one-story building off Kahan Drive.

But now, after 16 years as a sanctuary for those too impaired for Kiryas Joel's religious schools, the building will soon be replaced.

A few blocks away on Bakertown Road, trucks are clearing land for a $13 million, 40,000-square-foot school that will modernize the Kiryas Joel School District and accommodate the community's rapid growth.

The project marks a triumphant new stage in the life of a unique school forged in controversy.

The state Legislature created the school in 1989 because Kiryas Joel parents didn't want their handicapped children going to Monroe-Woodbury public schools to receive special services.

The Kiryas Joel district was repeatedly challenged in court and was finally declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994. But state lawmakers rewrote the legislation after each ruling. The final version went unchallenged.

Today, about 150 children with moderate and severe disabilities attend the school. Another 100 or so with minor problems are bused in for services. Most pupils are from Kiryas Joel, although some are tuition-paying students from Rockland, Sullivan and Westchester counties.

The age range is broad: from infancy, when specialists begin working with children in their homes, to age 21. The disability range is also broad, as seen during a recent visit to the school.

In one room, a physical therapist helps a little girl with mild cerebral palsy. In another, kids fill out worksheets to practice telling time. In others, workers guide children with multiple disabilities, mental and physical. Some are in wheelchairs or connected to feeding tubes.

All 150 teachers, therapists and other staff members know at least two languages, Yiddish and English. Students first learn only in Yiddish - the language spoken in most Kiryas Joel homes - and then in English as they get older.

The new school will add soundproof rooms for the speech department and a therapeutic pool, among other new features. It will initially hold up to 350 students but will be able to be expanded to bring the capacity to 420, said Superintendent Steven Benardo.

The goal is to move in by the fall of 2007.




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