Written by Cory Twibell Friday, 06 May 2011 00:00
Westbrook Preparatory School – New York State’s first residential secondary school for students with Asperger syndrome, high functioning autism and related conditions – marked the opening of its doors on St. Brigid’s Lane with a ribbon cutting on April 28 under rainy skies but with a bright outlook for its future.
“Westbrook is a program that was long in coming. It was a labor of love for all of you and it meets very real needs,” Gail Nayowith, executive director of SCO Family of Services, an outreach organization that has provided over 100 years of different services to children and families throughout New York State.
May-Lynn Andresen, Westbrook project director and parent advocate, said the weather was just one of myriad obstacles founders were forced to overcome.
Andresen’s son, who has high-functioning autism, experienced six failed school placements by the time he was 13 years old and was brought along with home schooling at times.
“Despite his average IQ and speaking skills, his strong abilities and love of reading, his desire to eventually get married, have children and a successful career, his struggles and deficits were such that he needed residential placement in order to be educated,” said Andresen.
A 10-hour roundtrip drive each Friday to and from an out of state residential school was the result. Andresen described the experience as the “most difficult and painful decision of my entire life.
“My example exemplifies what our founding members went through and many families in New York State went through, which is making very difficult and harsh choices. Do we keep our children in programs that do not meet their needs? Do we keep them home and isolated from the rest of the world and their peers? Today truly is about dreams and realities,” Andresen explained.
While sending her son out of state was a tumultuous experience, she said the harsh reality of being away from her son ultimately led her to a dream: opening a residential school right here in New York.
Four years later, Westbrook is her new reality.
“We’re proud to be the first and only secondary school in the state of New York to serve our student population. We’re bringing our youth back from out of state placements and keeping our youth here in New York,” Andresen said.
Westbrook, Andresen explained, is a transition-based program, which gives students an opportunity to “live productive and healthy, happy lives after they leave Westbrook Preparatory School.” Westbrook is also an education-based program with a “Regents track curriculum, teaching social communication skills, how to regulate emotions and responses appropriately, how to be a good friend and how to plan and prepare meals to eat, exercise and live in a healthy manner,” she noted.
“Our students are learning constantly throughout the day and night,” said Andresen, who also mentioned the cooperation on a local level.
“Westbury has truly welcomed Westbrook. Located in the perfect location to learn community skills, nearly 100 percent of our students are in job internships or about to begin job internships,” said Andresen, who noted that they’ve been approached by “nearly every university on Long Island” to develop educational affiliations.
Father Ralph Sommer, pastor at St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church, spoke and offered a blessing for the school. Village of Westbury Mayor Peter Cavallaro couldn’t attend but Village Trustee Joan Boes attended and welcomed Westbrook to the community.
“It is our pleasure to welcome Westbrook to Westbury. May the sun always shine brightly on your faces,” said Boes, who offered any Westbrook student with an interest in local government a future tour of Village Hall.
Geoffrey Kappenberg, a third-year film student at Pace University, also had to attend school out of state and dubbed his schooling “one educational disaster after another.
“We know that the parents of children on the autism spectrum have been as misunderstood and controversial as the autism spectrum itself. You have the massive challenge of balancing support with independence and responsibility, and for that, we thank you,” said Kappenberg, who humbly and humorously estimated that his parents drove a total of 160,000 miles during the course of his time at his past residential school just to stay involved in his education.
“This was far from an elite boarding school. It felt like a punishment and made me feel stigmatized for being on the autism spectrum. Its limitations and restrictions left me with an inadequate academic and social foundation out of high school,” said Kappenberg.
“We need a school that doesn’t just tell students that they can succeed and just lower the bar for success; Westbrook is that school,” he added.
Westbrook student and role model Nicholas Meyer read a poem he had written entitled Dreaming.
“I had many people say I can’t do it or I didn’t have enough skill or I wasn’t smart enough. But now I am motivated to prove to everybody that I can do whatever I want to do, conquering anything in my path to succeed,” said Meyer, with a confidence and sincerity affirmed after every word.
The various speakers throughout the event also thanked Ed Placke of the NYS Education Department, Butler Woodcrafters, the Jack Fanning Memorial Foundation, National Grid, the Tasco Family Foundation, Taylor Rentals, Old Westbury Gardens, private donors, founding members and neighboring St. Brigid’s School.