According to Autism Society of America, spectrum disorders, or autism, occur in one in every 150 births. While autism is not curable, it is treatable and diagnoses vary with one-third of all autistics classified as "on the spectrum" in that they have either High Functioning Autism (HFA) or Asperger's Syndrome.
SCO Family and Services is seeking to operate Westbrook Preparatory School out of St. Brigid's vacant convent.
Photo by Victoria A. Caruso
Most diagnosed with HFA or Asperger's possess average or above average intelligence levels as well as good language and cognitive skills but lack the ability to understand conventional social rules, make eye contact and engage in conversations. Additionally, they tend to have a difficult time grasping the use of gestures, irony or humor. For them, a normal school setting can be not only difficult but also impossible as local districts do not provide the services they require.
Currently, there are about 50 Long Island children ages 14 to 21 diagnosed with HFA or Asperger's - and no school in New York to service them. As a result, they must attend residential schools out-of-state, some as far as Massachusetts and Delaware, seeing family only on weekends and holidays for most of their academic lives. But Glen Cove-based SCO Family of Services (SCO), a nonprofit Catholic yet non-Sectarian human services agency, is hoping to change that.
SCO is seeking to open Westbrook Preparatory School, New York State's first co-ed "residential school for 24 bright yet fragile adolescences [ages 14-21] with high-functioning autism/Asperger's Syndrome" out of St. Brigid's vacant convent.
Since the property is currently zoned Residential B, St. Brigid's - as property owner - must obtain a use variance - not a permanent change in zoning -to operate Westbrook Prep as "institutional use." In May, Westbury's Board of Trustees denied the application based on the grounds that a school is not currently permitted to function within the current zone and an appeal was made to the village's zoning board. In considering the application, the zoning board reserved decision for additional review and discussion and, as of press time, a meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 28 at the Westbury Middle School.
After learning of the proposal, residents Barbara-Ann Cosenza and Marianne Trager, concerned about the idea, began distributing fliers to homeowners stating that SCO was seeking to rent the building for "institutional use to house and teach autistic and problem teenagers/adults ..." The flier also mentioned that these "unstable teenagers/adults" would use public playgrounds and gymnasiums and that locating an "institution of this kind so close to Drexel Avenue Elementary School as well as St. Brigid's/Our Lady of Hope Regional School" would pose a danger as "some autistic people can easily become violent, aggressive and defiant."
In an effort to respond to what the agency refers to as an array of misconceptions, SCO officials, along with parents of children with HFA or Asperger's Syndrome, met with parish members and school parents last month and, on June 24, a community forum took place in the auditorium of St. Brigid's/Our Lady of Hope School. During both meetings, parish and agency representatives were on hand to explain the specifics of the school as well as answer questions.
According to SCO Executive Director Robert McMahon, Westbrook Prep is not an "institution" but rather a year-round, tuition-based and state-funded school that would fall under the auspices of both the New York State Education Department and the Office of Children and Family Services. Westbrook Prep could service only two dozen children - no more, no less - between the ages of 14-21 with HFA or Asperger's Syndrome only.
All students would attend an eight-hour school day that encompass a state Regents course load and is taught by New York State Certified teachers and teacher's assistants. The academic day would include all required classes as well as a focus on the arts followed by a structured evening that would include homework, meal preparation and chores. Westbrook would staff a psychologist, licensed social worker, registered nurse and licensed speech therapist as well as provide around-the-clock supervision by trained professionals; students would not be allowed to leave the property unsupervised.
Additionally, said McMahon, the school would not drain local resources as students would not utilize Westbury buildings or facilities. In fact, he said, SCO has reached out to local universities and colleges as well as the county to develop programs and agreements for use of facilities and grounds.
If approved, SCO's goal is to have the school up-and-running by August 2009 and although enrollment has not been determined, McMahon said Long Island residents would be given first priority.
For Nassau County moms Diana Meyer and May-Lynn Andresen, Westbrook would mean the families could enjoy a Tuesday night pizza with their sons - without having to drive some three hours to see them.
"For the past three years, I drive 350 miles every Friday to pick him up and on Sundays, his dad does the same thing. You can imagine the impact on a family system - other than the very obvious - of not having your child there with you," said Andresen, whose son was not diagnosed with autism until second grade and spent several years struggling in local schools before going to a specialized school away from home. "This is a bright young man who is terribly, terribly fragile with social skills that were destroying him. We realized that if he was ever going to have a shot of making it and reaching his personal potential and being happy we would have to send him to another state to be educated. That was definitely the hardest decision a family can make."
Meyer, whose 15-year-old son Nicky has lived at a residential school for students with HFA and Asperger's Syndrome in Pennsylvania for the past seven-and-a half years, is hopeful Westbrook will enable her to fulfill a promise. "One thing I have always promised Nicky is that whenever I had a chance and there was a program we would stop going over a bridge and bring him home," she said, adding that while kids like Nicky will always tell you that school is where they thrive, succeed and do their best, home is where they would ultimately rather be. "All these kids want is to be home [and] I will do everything in my power to bring him home," Meyer said.
Residents, however, are mixed on the idea.
Although in favor of what the agency does, several community members are not sold on having an "institution" in their backyard. One resident said he would never have bought his home on Locust Street three years ago if such a school was in operation. "I for one will go door-to-door to make sure it does not happen," he said.
Admitting to distributing the fliers, Barbara-Ann Cosenza said that although she is sympathetic to the families and children with HFA and Asperger's Syndrome, she has a problem with the term "institution." "I see what you are trying to do and I understand what you are trying to do is for the children. I am not against the program, [but I am] worried about having an 'institution' in the middle of our residential neighborhood," said Cosenza.
According to agency officials, Westbrook is no way a Pilgrim State or hospital. They stated that an "institutional use" variance is the legal distinction given to residential schools.
Additionally, residents are requesting the village adhere to various stipulations, including agreeing to return the property to its Residential B zoning should Westbrook vacate the property or terminate its lease. According to SCO's Assistant Executive Director Susan Moran, since no permanent change in zoning is being requested and a use variance is only valid for the entity it is awarded to, SCO's Westbrook Prep, as a school for HFA and Asperger's Syndrome, is the only entity that would be allowed to operate at the site.
Others who attended the forum applauded the agency, its mission and efforts, and favor the idea of bringing these children home. Denise Pratesi of Asbury Avenue said she would be proud to have Westbrook Prep make its home in the community. "Everyone says 'why, why Westbury?' Well, why not? These are children. Our children," said Pratesi. "They are trying to better themselves and live the lives we are living. If we don't help them, what are we saying about ourselves and our community?"
"For years, local students who have Asperger's and who benefit from a residential program have been sent out of state ...," St. Brigid's Pastor Father Ralph Sommer told The Westbury Times. "It's about time that our state offers a program that keeps our kids home. There are over 50 Long Island children who qualify for this program and although Westbrook Prep School will only be able to take 24 of them that's a good start."
Over the past year and a half, the parish received offers from parties interested in renting the property, including using the building for off-campus dorms or a county-run half-away house. While these are all "important and necessary" operations they were "not suitable for a building next to two schools," said Father Sommer.
Built in the mid-1960s, the convent served as a home to approximately 20 Sisters of Notre Dame for nearly 30 years. In 1991, however, as the result of a dwindling sisterhood, the nuns relocated; currently, the parish's three sisters reside in a private home on Maple Avenue. Over the course of the next 15 years, the building was leased by the county and served as a satellite office for Nassau Police but, in February 2007, it was vacated as a result of County Executive Tom Suozzi's consolidation efforts. It has remained without a tenant since at a loss, thus far, of some $220,000 to the parish.
"The parish has relied on the income from the convent building for its many ministry programs which help elderly and youth and everyone in between. These programs are in jeopardy," Father Sommer said, adding, "We are in such debt right now that we won't be able to afford another heating season for the convent."
Denial of the project, in Father Sommer's opinion, could have a more adverse effect on the community and its property values than a school of Westbrook's nature would. "A boarded-up abandoned building will have a negative effect on the property values in the neighborhood. That's why finding a suitable tenant is so important," said the pastor, adding that, finances aside, rejecting the project would imply the wrong statement about Westbury and its residents.
"Westbury residents are proud of the kind of inclusive, caring community that they have created. If the Village of Westbury says that it's inappropriate for this school to exist here, it starts to change that inclusive nature of the village," Father Sommer said.