(Courtesy of LEARN/Coppola Photography)

LEARNing Academy in New London Educates Children From Across Southeast Connecticut with Complex Needs

in New London/Special Needs

NEW LONDON — In January, after five years of anticipation, Ocean Avenue LEARNing Academy opened for its first full school year, with 57 students and a full team of teachers and medical support providers. The school serves children in 25 towns and 21 school districts across southeastern Connecticut.

“Five years ago, when the team sat down and dreamed of what could be for the students with the most complex needs they wanted the kids to feel like a part of a school and a community member,” said Kate Ericson, the executive director of LEARN Regional Educational Service Center. “Historically programs would be found in the basement or the last space that you can think of to house students with the greatest needs. We wanted a building to actually speak to the kids about their value and their potential.”

Since LEARN was established in 1967, it has served students in the public school system with developmental disorders as well as social, emotional and behavioral challenges. It taught students in rented classrooms within other schools including Center School in Old Lyme and Lillie B. Haynes Elementary School in East Lyme.

(Courtesy of LEARN/Coppola Photography)

Although this arrangement worked well for a number of student who were able to attend schools close to home, the lack of a permanent space could also lead to disruption for students and families.

“It was beautiful to be in the school districts, but challenging to think about the most complex learners being moved if the district needed the space back,” said Bridgette Gordon-Hickey, LEARN’s deputy executive director and director of student support services. “This allows us to have kids with developmental disabilities all in one site instead of divided by grade level. It feels like a school to them.”

The new facility also gives LEARN the space to have medical support staff, including a speech language pathologist, clinical psychologist, occupational therapist, social worker, psychiatrist and behavior analyst. In addition, the school hosts a diagnostic and wellness center where a psychiatrist is available to determine the needs and to develop an individualized education plan (IEP) for students from across the 21 districts

“My older son still has a lot of struggles. Knowing that into middle school he would be able to stay there is comforting,” Silva said. “Staff changes are really hard for him. Knowing that he is in the same building with the old teacher just down the hall makes it easier.”

“It allows us to be nimble and students to truly get what they need,” Ericson said.

Compared to the rented spaces where previously providers rotated between sites, at its Ocean Avenue location Learn has there is a large bench of professionals ready to work with students each day.

“It’s not segregation, but the needs for these kids are so big that staying in the public school buildings does not work,” Ericson said. “Some of these students are fragile human beings that need a lot of medical attention.”

Students are referred to LEARN when a district’s own special education resources are not enough. Some students stay with LEARN for just a few months, but others continue until they are 21 and graduate in the program.

Tiffany Silva, a resident of East Lyme, has two sons who started at the Ocean Avenue LEARN Academy this January after enrolling in the program at Lillie B. Haynes.

(Courtesy of LEARN/Coppola Photography)

“I have 2 boys who were adopted so they have trauma issues and developmental delays and learning disabilities,” Silva said. “We tried to keep them in the local schools, but the special services weren’t enough. As soon as both of them have gone to learn it’s been wonderful. They are getting the one-on-one support that they need.”

For her older son especially, the new LEARN school gives him the stability he needs for his education.

“My older son still has a lot of struggles. Knowing that into middle school he would be able to stay there is comforting,” Silva said. “Staff changes are really hard for him. Knowing that he is in the same building with the old teacher just down the hall makes it easier.”

Although in many ways Ocean Avenue LEARN Academy is a great fit for both her sons, Silva said the lack of peer contact with non-special needs students is a downside.

“We had a student graduate from our 18 to 21 program this spring and his family were immigrants from China. He had been in our program since elementary school,” Gordon-Hickey said. The student learned skills to work and developed into an artist. He is now pursuing continued education in art.

“My kids have more behavioral issues so they can still interact socially with their peers. For my older son especially, it was nice when he got to go to recess with the other kids in East Lyme,” Silva said. “For my younger son we were thinking about having him spend some time with typical classes this year because he’s been doing so well, but now that won’t be possible.”

Silva also said that stricter privacy standards for special needs students and the realities of regional education make it harder to form connections with other families and allow children to get together and play outside of school.

For families of students with developmental needs, however, the LEARN programs give them hope and confidence that their child will grow to be a contributing member of society.

“We had a student graduate from our 18 to 21 program this spring and his family were immigrants from China. He had been in our program since elementary school,” Gordon-Hickey said. The student learned skills to work and developed into an artist. He is now pursuing continued education in art.

“At graduation his family got up and said none of his success would ever have happened had they not moved to the United States and found LEARN,” Gordon-Hickey said. “It was a stark celebration and a reminder that not everyone has access to such wonderful resources.”

The search for a larger stand-alone facility began five years ago when LEARN was seeing an increase of referrals to their programs year after year. They were running out of rooms within the district schools and LEARN was having to turn students away because they did not have the space.

(Courtesy of LEARN/Coppola Photography)

“We can take the referrals now and truly serve this population in our region,” Ericson said.

Overall, the renovation project cost close to $5 million, 80 percent of which will be reimbursed by the state.

“It took five years, but to be able to open these doors and say that your feedback and your needs can be met when we come together and work for a regional solution it is wonderful,” Gordon-Hickey said. “We are really proud of our district superintendents and our staff and the work that’s done to make families feel so welcome.”

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