Johnson Gets ‘OK’ To Expand Special Education Offering
By: Alex Scofield
Sandwich Superintendent Mary Ellen Johnson remembers a trip she took with a student earlier this school year who was being bused to an out-of-town special education program.
She said she got on the bus at 6 AM with the student, who suffered from anxiety that made it difficult for him to thrive in a traditional school setting, and rode with him during his hourlong trip to the out-of-district program in the Boston area.
While chatting with the student, she said a thought occurred to her: “Why can’t we have a program for students like him in Sandwich?”
After last week getting the green light from the school committee, Sandwich will have just such a program at the start of the next school year in Project Excel.
The program would be at Camp Burgess, on Stowe Road in East Sandwich, and would serve eight to 12 students who have had difficulty excelling within the traditional classroom structure, Dr. Johnson said.
It would not be tailored for students with severe learning or physical disabilities, but rather for those who suffer from social anxiety or other behavioral issues that make it difficult for them to learn side by side with other students.
Having grown up in a rural setting herself, Dr. Johnson said that the Burgess location would be the key to the success of Project Excel.
The program was designed through the efforts of Dr. Johnson, as well as Sandwich High School environmental technology teacher Gilbert S. Newton, Camp Burgess Director Bruce Netherwood and Camp Burgess Director of Outdoor Education Carl Bickerdike.
Dr. Johnson said that Mr. Netherwood was eager to collaborate with the Sandwich schools when approached about the idea of hosting a program at Camp Burgess.
Students would spend parts of the day in a classroom, which would be outfitted with a Smartboard and laptops with Internet access.
However, Dr. Johnson said, the camp itself would also serve as a classroom for students.
“Having grown up on a farm myself, I can appreciate and recognize all that can be learned in that kind of environment: confidence, self-reliance, resiliency and even leadership,” she said.
She added that she believed students would also receive more one-on-one attention, as there would be four teachers for about eight to 12 students.
Dr. Johnson said Project Excel is partly modeled after Outward Bound, a long-running nonprofit educational organization that believes struggling students can make breakthroughs by being exposed to learning opportunities in outdoor environments.
Unlike Outward Bound, which runs for several weeks at a time, Project Excel would be a year-round program for students.
“Students could stay in this program for the entire school year, and potentially earn their diploma from Sandwich High School through Project Excel,” she said.
Dr. Johnson said that students would need to conform to the same academic standards defined by the Massachusetts Department of Education as their peers who attended classes within Sandwich High School.
The program would require the district to hire three new teachers, as well as a social worker.
Mr. Bickerdike, Burgess’ outdoor education director, would also work as a part-time teacher for the program.
The cost of the new hires would be offset by the money the schools would save by not having to pay for contracted services or out-of-district programs.
The Sandwich School Department has been criticized in the past for looking to replace out-of-district programs with those of their own design in order to reduce costs and increase the amount of control they have over students’ education.
Dr. Johnson, however, said that so far she has a strong track record of building in-district programs.
She pointed to the Spinnaker Program as one such example.
Founded at the beginning of this school year, the Spinnaker Program replaced the May Institute, a contracted service for students on the autism spectrum; the program is located within the Henry T. Wing School.
So far the Spinnaker Program has received strong reviews from parents.
Those who initially opposed that program argued that the district was taking on a liability by attempting to build a program from scratch that would not provide the same educational benefits to students as a more established, out-of-district program.
When asked if she feared that she may face the same concerns from parents in regard to Project Excel, Dr. Johnson said she was confident that the Sandwich School District would be able to provide a program that was just as strong, if not stronger, than the ones students were attending out of district.
Dr. Johnson said it was also the responsibility of the district to provide students an opportunity to learn within the schools, rather than have to travel outside of the district every day.
“All students deserve an opportunity to be educated within their own community,” she said.
Dr. Johnson said she is planning an informational meeting on Thursday, April 8, from 6 to 8 PM at Camp Burgess for parents who are interested in enrolling their students in Project Excel.
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