On Sept. 6, Abilities First School opened its doors in Cornwall-on-Hudson. The school, which provides programs and services for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, will temporarily occupy the former St. Thomas of Canterbury School while a more permanent facility is constructed in the old Devitt’s Medical Arts Building on Windsor Highway in New Windsor.
With locations in LaGrange and Red Hook, this will be the school’s first in Orange County. The impact is already being felt as some parents have moved their child to the new facility to keep them closer to home.
“Our director of new program development recommended this site,” said Melissa McCoy, chief advancement officer. “She met with the New York archdiocese and the local parish priest. The space is empty during the day. It’s a great opportunity.”
The new facility currently services 22 students, ages 5 to 21. Overall, Abilities First School supports over 116 students from 22 districts throughout the Hudson Valley. The school is certified by the New York State Education Department.
Through early intervention children may be identified as needing additional support. Some school districts may be able to provide that opportunity through special education programs while other students may need to attend another facility like Abilities First.
Some students stay at Abilities First until they catch up to their peers. Others may continue through early adulthood.
Like the public school system, the day starts at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 2:30 p.m. But unlike public schools, class sizes are limited to four to six children, plus their aides.
“They receive curriculum based on individual education plans, occupational and physical therapy, and other types of therapeutic resources they might require,” said McCoy.
McCoy said 75 percent of the children in the school don’t speak a traditional language. They may be taught to communicate through sign language or the use of technology. Many of the students have been identified as autistic.
At Abilities First, students are grouped by cognitive abilities rather than age. Like a one-room schoolhouse, a classroom may have 5, 6, and 7-year-olds learning together.
Students also learn basic skills such as cooking, washing dishes, and doing laundry.
“Our focus is to give them the strength and skills while they’re within our school system, to give them the ability to be as independent and successful as they can,” McCoy said. “Some will go on to college or vocational opportunities. Others may need some day or support services.”
A big part of the program is helping the students become members of the community. New York Military Academy has agreed to let them use its pool. Cornwall Central School District will provide their meals. The school will be getting a van in order to take the children into town so they can go to the park or visit the library.
Abilities First expects to go out to bid on a contractor for the new facility sometime this fall. The hope is to be open for the start of school next year.
NOTE: Although not at the St. Thomas location, Abilities First does have terminally ill children who receive home schooling through the program. These children require ambulatory transportation which the school is not yet able to provide, but is trying to bridge the gap to allow these children the opportunity to interact with their peers. Parents have been invited to bring their child for a visit and there has been a visible difference between how the child behaves at home and during the visit.