The approaching school year brings new activity to 219 Stanton Street, former home of Our Lady of Sorrows, the Catholic school on the corner of Pitt Street that closed last year. The Cooke Center, a provider of special education services in New York City, is opening a new grammar school for children with disabilities at the site. Serving about 100 students in grade levels K-8, the school will offer a curriculum tailored to the specific needs of children with mild-to-moderate cognitive or developmental disabilities or severe language-based learning disabilities.
Now in its 25th year, the Cooke Center has a long history in Catholic school buildings like 219 Stanton. In fact, the center got its start when a small group of parents of children with Down Syndrome successfully convinced Dr. Michael Termini, the principal of a parochial school, to welcome special needs students into his classrooms. Termini now serves as the president of the larger Cooke Center network, which has grown to include more than 500 students from preschool through high school.
The center also operates a successful high school program at 60 MacDougal Street in SoHo, formerly home to St. Anthony’s, another Catholic school. When Termini learned that the New York Archdiocese was closing Our Lady of Sorrows, school officials saw the opportunity to unify grammar school operations. In recent years, the Cooke Center has educated grammar school students at three different sites within parochial schools in Manhattan. The new school represents a shift in the center’s orientation, from “school within a school” designs.
“When we were in the prior ‘school within a school’ model, in a certain sense, as much as we were welcomed by the school community, we were still a separate school,” said Emily Cozart, Cooke’s director of external relations. “And to a certain degree, we felt like visitors in our own program.”
In the past, Cooke students had limited opportunities to contribute to the culture of a given host school, but the stand-alone high school program has created a sense of pride and accomplishment among students. “Rather than having token involvement in something like yearbook committee, or prom, or things like that if you’re in a General Ed. setting, these kids really own everything they do,” said Cozart.
And according to the school’s curriculum, they will be doing quite a lot. In addition to classrooms outfitted with SMART Boards, the newly renovated school boasts a science lab, art studio, and movement space, outfitted with a “traversing wall” for climbing. The large, open lot behind the school is also getting a new fence and some safety improvements this month; it contains a garden and will serve as an outdoor recreational area. Aside from academic work tailored specifically to their individual needs, all students will participate in yoga, music, adaptive physical education and trips into the local community.
“Rather than have inclusion in the classroom, with the General Ed. population, we put more of an emphasis on community inclusion through off-site education,” said Anne Halligan, director of marketing at the Cooke Center. When students travel together on the Lower East Side, teachers can help them learn practical skills, like navigating public transportation or using an ATM. In the past, students have also undertaken several service projects, and the school hopes to renew that initiative in its new home. “It’s really about finding the right partners in the community for it,” noted Halligan. “We need to be talking up our program, helping people understand our student population and the things that they can do.”
The cost of providing these services is understandably high, and Cozart estimated the school spends about $45,000 to educate one student in a given year. The Department of Education reimburses tuition to parents of students it cannot appropriately place in the public school system, but it does not cover 100 percent of the yearly price. “We educate any student who needs our services regardless of the families’ financial circumstances, and a portion of our students cannot afford the full cost of tuition,” Cozart explained. As a result, Cooke depends on grant money and other charitable donations to operate.
As might be expected, the school receives many more applications than it can accommodate. Admissions personnel work to understand applicants’ particular educational needs, and then choose the group of students whom they feel the school can serve best.
“It is fairly selective, and there’s an art to the acceptance process,” said Halligan. “It’s very important, from a classroom perspective, that there’s the right mix of social skills, and groupings are taken into account for admissions decisions somewhat. We do have a really diverse population of students, but that’s not to say that we can expertly serve every type of student with every disability.” The new school’s doors are set to open on September 10th, when students and their parents will have a first look at the new facility.