345 Chambers Street: Special in More than One Way

A profile of the section of District 75, the public school section for special needs students within the Stuyvesant building.

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Stuyvesant High School currently houses around 3,500 students and staff, each of whom navigates the 10-story building, and they bump into one another on a daily basis. But we are not the only school inside this busy building. Stuyvesant is also home to more than just its own attendees: the school also accommodates a section of District 75, an immense citywide program that serves students with a range of disabilities.

The section of District 75 within the Stuyvesant building is geared toward post-high-school students who are on the autism spectrum. Most of the students come from inclusion high school programs in which students take some of their classes in a normal high school but also do independent learning within their program. The other students come from self-contained classrooms where all the activities occur with the same group of students and with the same teacher.

The school, P226M, serves students from pre-kindergarten up to the age of 21, with 10 sites throughout Manhattan. Within the program at Stuyvesant, there are a few different classrooms, each directed toward students with different needs.

It is a transition program between school and jobs that focuses on vocational skills and social skills, and explores job opportunities, placing a heavy emphasis on preparing their students for life after schooling. Elizabeth Goldstein, overseer of this site and a teacher in the program, explained, “We do person-centered planning, which means each student comes up with a plan for what they’re going to do once they finish our program.”

In Goldstein’s classroom, students take part in multiple activities and tasks throughout the day. In the morning, some students go to a vocational school where they learn technical skills while others go to work-study programming. “They go out to sites throughout Manhattan and they get on-the-job training, so they can develop skills for getting a job,” Goldstein explained. These sites include Battery Park City, Harlem Hospital, Goodwill, and CVS. In the afternoon, students do classroom work. These tasks include studying and reviewing job aspirations, planning trips to retail stores, and receiving on-site training.

For example, Russell, a student in the program, explained that he and Goldstein went onto the internet and explored jobs in his field of interest, natural hair styling. “I’m in natural hairstyling and [Goldstein] knows that I love fashion and art,” he explained. “She’s trying to help me work somewhere like a beauty store.”

In other classrooms, students spend more of the day together learning practical skills. In Meghan Ryan’s classroom, students learn skills like grocery store math. They also travel as a group to work-sites around Manhattan, such as PetSmart and Goodwill.

The students who take part in the program are very enthusiastic about the year so far. Russell described that the most valuable thing he learned in the program was the importance of responsibility. “Even though I was taught in high school about responsibility, I did not really get it. But I feel like the one thing that I’ve really learned [is] responsibility. Because being here, I’ve realized that having a planner is really going to be important because it reminds [me] that I have to be at this place at this time or I have to be there at that specific time. So kind of managing responsibility in a very professional [way] has been really cool.”

Another student, Gabriel, described the Stuyvesant program as very successful. “It’s really awesome,” he said.

For teachers though, instructing the students and planning programs is not always easy. In Ryan’s classroom, it is difficult to find companies that are willing to work with the students. “I think that people who haven’t done it might be nervous about the fact that students with disabilities are coming in and have a preconceived notion of what they can do, and they haven’t seen what our students can actually bring to our table,” Ryan said.

Goldstein echoed, “For me, as the coordinator, [the most challenging thing is] always about developing the opportunities for our students and getting to know the right people that give the opportunities to us so that they can have experiences out in the community, working in certain businesses and being mentored in businesses by certain people, and always make that grow so that it’s not always the same experience [and] so that we have a range of experiences.”

However, when the teachers see the improvements in the students, the difficulties are shown to be worth it. Ryan explained that when she overhears students talking about their plans for the future, he feels very rewarded. Ryan said, “I really like when they’re talking to each other and [saying], ‘oh, I want to live in an apartment because of this’ and making dreams and goals for themselves.” Principal Imma Jardi described what makes her feel the most rewarded: “The students; knowing that we did what we were supposed to, having the students succeed, [...] [and] teaching the students to do something and then they do it.”

Shamir, a student in Ryan’s classroom, hopes to work at PetSmart in the future because he “likes cute animals,” he said, especially pandas. Gabriel hopes to work in fashion in the future. For now, he focuses on his own style and enjoys buying clothing, especially from Forever21.

Both students and teachers in P226M hope to build a closer relationship with the Stuyvesant community. Ryan explained, “I think any time that they can model off of a typically functioning peer will be a positive experience in just showing correct skills. Because [...] we’re also working on social skills, including being appropriate. So when you have a model that’s more your age, it’s sometimes an easier way to learn than [having] me telling them.” Goldstein echoed that engaging in some sort of peer mentoring program would be good for the students’ social schools. Gabriel added on that he would “love to get to know to know the Stuyvesant students. It would be amazing. Hang out with them, argue with them, it would be great.”