On first glance the Carman Road School looks like any other school. Except for the wide automatic sliding doors leading into the building or the handrails that span the length of every wall, its simply another school building. But according to Principal Amy Rumelt, the Carman Road School for the Physically Disabled is much more.
The only Nassau BOCES school exclusively for the disabled, the Carman Rd. School has an enrollment of 200 students with a wide range of physical and cognitive disabilities from age 3 to 21. As with any school, the main objective is learning and helping children to grow into the best adults they can be. The building consists of classrooms decorated with children's art work, a gym, a computer lab and a home economics room, nothing unique to the Carman Rd. School.
But it doesn't take long to notice the differences.
The student body includes youngsters who walk without assistance, with crutches and in wheelchairs. While some are extremely verbal, others can communicate very little or are affected with severe cognitive disabilities. Some students are old pros with a spoon or fork, others need to be fed. Students are challenged with an assortment of physical and cognitive disabilities that require special attention making mainstream schools impractical and insufficient.
"Our children are children," said Rumelt. "They have good days. They have bad days."
Rumelt, who began her career in general education, said that during her first week in special education, she questioned her decision to switch, but quickly adjusted. "After the first week, you know what, you don't see wheelchairs, you see children," said Rumelt.
Staffed by what Rumelt describes as a hard-working and dedicated group of special education and health care professionals, children at the school have access to not only teachers but also physical therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, speech therapists and visual and hearing specialists. According to Rumelt, there is a 9:3 student/adult ratio which includes one teacher and two teachers' aides per nine children. The nurses at the Carman Rd. School are prepared to deal with a wide range of issues from catheterizations, treating seizures to the less-serious everyday bumps and bruises children are likely to get. The school also has an impressive roster of approximately 70 volunteers from the community who Rumelt said are honored with a luncheon every year for their support. The Parent Teachers Association provides yet another well of support for the students.
Together the staff, faculty, PTA and volunteers have created an atmosphere of community and familial support for the students, according to Rumelt. Taking responsibility for more than just the academic life of the students, Rumelt said she believes that because the students come from all over Nassau County making it difficult for them to socialize with school friends after school, it is important to provide opportunities for them to socialize as well as learn academics. The school accomplishes this by hosting holiday celebrations and dances including the yearly prom which is often attended by school alumni.
"We transcend every ethnic group that you can think of," said Rumelt. "We celebrate every holiday. We are equal opportunity celebrators and it's part of education just like in any other school where you have thematic based instruction"
Halloween, St. Patrick's Day, Valentine's, and even Ground Hog days are celebrated at the school. The school also holds mock elections on Election day with a parade. Rumelt said it is particularly important for the school's teenagers, who like most teenagers want to spend time with friends. But with their friends scattered across the county and not being able to drive, these teenagers may find few opportunities to socialize.
"It's difficult; the world is not made for people with disabilities. The world was made for those of us without," added Rumelt.
Keeping that fact in mind, the curriculum at the Carman Rd. School differs greatly from that of a mainstream school. Aside from the usual reading and writing that is not within every students capabilities, teachers are called on to teach things that the rest of society takes for granted such as brushing their hair or riding the train.
"For us, it's not about passing a Regents exam," said Rumelt. "It's about being more independent and when you see youngsters make the change to being independent, productive members of society, that's what it's about."
One room of the school is dedicated to helping students to navigate their way around a home. It's called the apartment room and students may learn anything from how to tidy up to how to decide what to do around the house on a day off. Students are also taught how to cook simple recipes in the school's home economics room equipped with all the conveniences of an ordinary kitchen.
Students between the ages of 15 and 21 spend at least part of their school day out in the community learning the ins and outs of integrating into society. Students who are able to take public transportation are taught how to navigate their way to where they want to go. Learning to use money, reading "Don't Walk" signs and knowing the difference between turning left and right are details teachers have to focus on in order to prepare students for post-graduate life.
Carman Rd. students are also no strangers to computer technology. As in many schools, the computer lab is one of the most popular attractions around. The lab is also equipped with computer accessories geared to making them more user friendly for those who can't manipulate a mouse or a keyboard.
Despite the challenges, Rumelt said she has no problem holding on to teachers. "I don't lose teachers, they want to be here," she said. "You need to want to be in a place like this." And according to Rumelt, the rewards of working with special-needs students are great.
"It's the most exciting thing in the world to see a child understand what you are saying and to see a child who has not been able to verbalize or have any mode of expression yet suddenly have a communication device and be able to communicate their needs and their wants. That's what it's about," she said.
Another lesson Rumelt has gotten out of working with the disabled is being able to put life's troubles into perspective.
"We all have to remember 10 percent of the population is disabled and the other 90 percent is waiting for it to happen," she said. "When we approach life like that, number one you gain an empathy for those who are in the current 10 percent and you also gain an understanding of how fragile life can be but how wonderful life can be."
The Nassau BOCES Carman Road School for the Physically Disabled will be holding its annual Wheel-A-Thon and Craft Fair on Oct. 24 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the school on Carman Road and Pittsburg Ave. in Massapequa.
Participants, disabled or not, are invited to use their personal wheels of choice, for this PTA sponsored event. Rollerblades, wheelchairs, skateboards or strollers are all acceptable means of getting around the school building as many times as possible in order to raise money for the PTA which supports the school's instructional, cultural and enrichment programs. Others who don't want to join the Wheel-a-thon may just want to stop by to browse the crafts fair or try their luck with raffles.
The Carman Road School, the only public school for the disabled in Nassau County, has an enrollment of 200 children with a wide range of physical and cognitive disabilities from age 3 to 21.
For more information or to register call Ann Meyer at 608-6200.