50 Years of Belonging and Community for Students with Disabilities

Home E CES Stories E 50 Years of Belonging and Community for Students with Disabilities
Article Author: Kathy Levesque
Publication Name: Collaborative for Educational Services
Article Date: April 29, 2024
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In 1974, the Massachusetts special education law Chapter 766 was passed, which required that all school districts provide education in a new and more inclusive way for students with special needs residing in their communities. The Collaborative for Educational Services (CES), then Hampshire Educational Collaborative (HEC), soon began to help districts in Hampshire County with programs that could support students with disabilities and engage them in their school communities. We hosted our first special education program at Hampshire College in 1975. As time went on, our special education programs served hundreds of students with diverse special needs, mostly in classrooms housed in multiple member districts. CES also assisted our members to create and sustain their own special education programs, helping students remain within their communities. As districts built their own capacity, CES programs evolved and expanded into new directions.

Said Sherry Smith, current CES Director of Special Education: 

“Early on, CES provided an array of school-based related services such as speech, occupational therapy, vision and mobility, and physical therapy; and developed specialty centers such as the Occupational Therapy Center, specializing in the treatment of sensory processing disorders; the Center for Assistive Technology and Training, providing assistive technology and augmentative and alternative communication services; and the Literacy Center for highly specialized literacy interventions.” 

In November of 2000, CES purchased the HEC Academy building at 228 Pleasant Street to house a special education therapeutic day school for students. While the Academy initially served boh middle and high school students, now HEC Academy serves students in grades 9-12 who present with complex diagnostic profiles, which can include emotional disorders, learning disabilities, ADHD, and/or Autism Spectrum Disorder, and/or school refusal. The Academy has also become skilled in supporting special education students who are gender non-conforming, gender-questioning, or working through identity transition. The staff have a commitment to students of all identities and backgrounds, and we model this approach for our students on a daily basis.

The clinical approach and therapeutic programming of the program have strengthened and evolved over time to provide a highly relational and trauma-informed approach. Early on, clinicians would come in as independent contractors to our alternative programs for specific student needs, and then leave after therapy was completed. Now, the school has a full-time, in-house, and dedicated clinical team of three licensed clinicians as well as two clinical interns, who join the Academy every year from the Smith College School of Social Work. Now, social-emotional learning classes (taught by the clinical team members) are provided 4 days per week, and therapeutic supports are integrated throughout the school day. Both the academic and clinical staff work closely together in service of the students. The collaboration between the educators and the clinical providers serves to facilitate student growth in a global manner beyond just moving them toward graduation. Today, HEC Academy has evolved to a setting with a strong focus on equity and community, which welcomes all students and supports the individual expression of students’ identities. 

Added programs like a robust art program, service learning projects and volunteering, and a gardening program are empowering students to choose projects that would make a meaningful impact on their communities. Through these experiences, Academy students are making closer bonds to others in their community. Many of the current opportunities have been spearheaded by our special education teachers, whose passion and enthusiasm has fueled new projects like a variety of work internships in the area, and volunteering at local community organizations. Students have worked to impact food scarcity in the area through their fundraising activities with Monte’s March, and more recently, to contribute through volunteer work at Manna Community Kitchen, where they serve meals to community members. Some students work at the Village Closet in Huntington once per month, which gives clothes and baby items to families in need; other students regularly volunteer at the Western Mass Rabbit Rescue, where students create a clean environment for rabbits and help to socialize them so that they can be adopted. Some of our students have secured paid internships for their Rabbit Rescue work. 

Increasingly, HEC Academy students are interested in caring for both their immediate community and also their world. They are taking steps to make HEC Academy a green school in as many ways as possible, and they have participated in a wide array of “Green” projects such as our gardening program, and our reduce-reuse-and recycling efforts.Students are also extending their conservation efforts into the community. With Northampton Grow Food Gardens, for instance, students assisted in the flood cleanup. And their monthly volunteer work at the Village Closet in Huntington, MA, helps the organization to divert textiles, books, and toys from the waste stream by redistributing them for free to families in need. As a result of all of these efforts, HEC Academy has been selected as a 2024 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School, a great honor. 

As students practice advocacy for and within their communities, they are making important connections to the world in which they live, and learning about their own power to make change. One parent told us, “You all have worked to create a learning and self-reflective school where the kids can be themselves and can be celebrated, supported, and taught..from day one last fall [my child] has had a chance, over and over, to reach for academic and emotional success while staying grounded in her own physical experience of being herself, a unique individual on this planet.”

Director Sherry Smith credits the success of the CES Special Education department to its talented, dedicated, and compassionate staff members. “Every related service provider, teaching staff member, and administrative staff member that has worked or is working in our department is passionate about their work and committed to helping our students succeed. We see this in the longevity of commitment in our department, which represents a combined total of 252 years of service. While special education can have its stressors, it also comes with great joy and a true appreciation for our students, which is difficult to measure. Our staff have always believed in our students — they really see them, try to support them, and find ways to celebrate them. I am so proud to work with the people I have worked with in our department over the years.”

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