Where siblings lead the way

A La Salle program enlists brothers and sisters for special-needs care.

Posted: July 11, 2007

Marc and Bethany Wasson, 15-year-old fraternal twins from Willow Grove, attend school separately during the year because Bethany is autistic and Marc is not.

During the summer, however, they can go to school together through an education program in Horsham for special-needs children and their siblings.

Marc holds Bethany's hand in the classroom, saying gently, "Stay over here, OK?" whenever she looks away and starts to wander off during class.

The two take classes together in courses that emphasize reading, math and art.

La Salle University graduate students specializing in education staff the three-week summer program as teachers and classroom supervisors. The experience is designed to challenge the future teachers to deal with special-needs children and their non-disabled siblings at the same time.

"This is a very unique program because we have daily communication with the parents and we take the entire family," said Carole A. Patrylo, program director and assistant professor of education at La Salle.

Sheldon H. Horowitz, director of professional services at the National Center for Learning Disabilities in New York, said inclusion programs have been around for years but including siblings is a new approach.

"The inclusion of siblings is particularly interesting because these kids already have relationships with them and it gives them a jump start in a place of learning because they don't have to try to form these relationships first," Horowitz said in a telephone interview.

Mary Jo Wasson, Marc and Bethany's mother, said, "This program is so good. Bethany really likes being here with her brother. She's not verbal at all, but whenever we talk about it, she looks so happy."

The program, which began in the early 1990s, runs from 9:15 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. each day and includes children from prekindergarten to grade 12. Participants come to Simmons Elementary School in Horsham each summer from 14 different school districts in Bucks and Montgomery Counties. Last year, one family came from Connecticut to attend the program.

Greg Smith, 16, from Ambler, who has cerebral palsy, said: "I like coming here. It's more fun than regular school."

Jen Smith, Greg's 11-year-old sister, is a teacher's aide in the program. "I like coming here and helping out, especially with arts and crafts," said Jen, who wants to become an elementary school teacher.

Jen smiles and holds the door for Greg, who is in a wheelchair, so that he can join his classmates outside for lunch.

"I like the teachers. They hold the paper for me so it's easier to write and draw," said Greg.

The summer program, with 84 students this year, takes children with a wide spectrum of disabilities, including autism, mental retardation, attention-deficit disorder, emotional dysfunction, and cerebral palsy.

"The inclusion aspect of the program is great because these kids need role models. Many of the disorders are social ones, and they can learn the right way to do things from their peers," said Randi Gelman, a retired Philadelphia schoolteacher and classroom supervisor in the program.

While the special-needs children learn how to socialize, read, and do math, their siblings learn about the daily hurdles these students face. Some siblings even decided to dedicate their lives to helping special-needs children as a result of the experience.

Caitlin Immerman, 21, from Horsham, whose sister Sarah has Down syndrome, attended the program with her for two years and now teaches in the program as a La Salle undergraduate student.

When asked if her relationship with her sister helped influence her career decision, she responded: "Absolutely. People don't realize that they are normal kids; they just have different needs."

Sarah Immerman, 18, said of her sister, "She's a wonderful teacher. We're pretty close."

The inclusion program is taught by a staff of 10 supervisors who are full-time or retired teachers, 15 La Salle graduate student teachers, and 16 undergraduate classroom assistants.

La Salle's two-year graduate-education program allows for dual certification, meaning that one summer must be spent teaching regular-education children and the other spent with special-education children.

"So, they can do both parts of this coursework here," said Michael Farrell, curriculum assistant and recent La Salle graduate.

Contact staff writer Katie Stuhldreher at 215-854-2601 or kstuhldreher@phillynews.com.

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