IDEAL School of Manhattan Mixes Kids With and Without Special Needs

IDEAL School of Manhattan is innovating special education
Two students at the IDEAL school of Manhattan. (Photo: The IDEAL School of Manhattan)
Oct 15, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

The IDEAL School of Manhattan sounds too good to be true.

The nonprofit, independent school is a diverse place of inclusion where children with special needs learn beside gifted students. The hallways are free of bullying and teasing, and students receive one-on-one teaching in every class.

“We don’t make kids behave or learn all in the same way,” says Angela Bergeson, who is head of the school. “They are allowed to be who they are and we provide the curriculum.”

More: After Her Daughter's Autism Diagnosis, Impassioned Mom Creates a Special Needs School

The IDEAL School started eight years ago by a group of parents, including Michelle Smith, the mother of a son who was diagnosed with Down syndrome. Smith, like many parents, couldn’t find an integrated elementary program that wasn’t solely for special needs children. So she decided to start one.

Smith calls herself “the mom with a vision” who wanted to see a place where all students, regardless of their differences, could learn and be friends.

“We don’t, and didn’t, believe that special needs children needed to be segregated.” Smith says. “Different is normal for them. Everybody’s different. You get made fun for that anywhere else, but it’s not tolerable here.”

Smith and other parents invited educators and therapists to an initial meeting about starting such a school with a unique model. Bergeson was one of them. She was immediately sold on the idea and began to write the plan and curriculum for the school that would focus on individualized education for each child.

The IDEAL School opened with 20 students in 2005. Now, 55 educators teach 106 students from kindergarten to eighth grade in classes that have no more than 18 students in each.

The students are vastly diverse, with 37 percent of the student body Caucasian, 27 percent African American, 18 percent Latino, 3 percent Asian, and 15 percent multiracial. One third of the students are “special needs” and 40 percent of the students receive scholarship help.

One unique aspect of the teaching model is each class has two teachers—a general educator and a special education specialist. The specialist helps all students so that no one feels different. The name of the school is also an acronym for the school’s core principles, says Bergeson.

“IDEAL” stands for individualized, diversity, excellence, acceptance, and leadership.

It’s not about tolerance, but it’s about accepting the full identity.

“We aren’t trying to create cookie cutters,” Bergeson says. “It’s not about tolerance, but it’s about accepting the full identity. We celebrate those things we do well and we’re okay for challenges. We have town meetings and an ethics curriculum that steers the core values of the school.”

Bergeson says that while some students attend dance or chess classes, others go to speech or occupational therapy. It’s part of erasing the stigma.

“Other students who don’t have therapy, beg to go,” she says. “It’s 2012. We should be over this in this country. It’s not something we should be hiding.”

Teaching is extremely targeted and specialized. For example, while everyone is learning the same topic, say on butterflies, they will be learning about that subject on their own reading level. It’s not a one-size-fits-all education, Bergeson says.

The school has become such a success that educators from around the world are tuning in. A group from Armenia recently visited the school. They were shocked, Bergeson says, that special needs students could be in the same classroom environment as other students who might be ahead on the learning curve.

With this in mind, the founders want to extend their school to 12th grade and also replicate this educate model in other cities like Chicago and San Francisco.

“If it is working in this urban setting, there’s a need in other places,” Bergeson says. “When people walk through the school, they have a conversion moment.”