Superintendents Oppose Gersh Academy

Whether South Fork children who are on the autism spectrum are receiving optimal educational services depends on whom you ask. As reported here on Nov. 9, two parents spoke passionately at a town board meeting early this month, saying more specialized services were needed and welcomed the news that Gersh Academy, a private school for children on the spectrum, would like to take over the former Child Development Center of the Hamptons building on Stephen Hand’s Path in East Hampton.

“Many don’t realize that there’s a community of children here with autism,”  Genie Egerton-Warburton told the board. “We need a school here for children with autism.”

Not so, said the superintendents of the East Hampton, Springs, Montauk, and Bridgehampton School Districts at an East Hampton Town Board meeting last week, making it clear that they are “totally against” the proposal. 

They expressed the belief that the less restrictive, more integrated environment provided in the local schools for special needs students, including those with autism, better serves children with disabilities by giving them tools to eventually integrate into society in ways that a specialized school cannot.  

“The Gersh Academy wants to turn the clock back,” Debra Winter, the superintendent of the Springs School District, said. Mr. Gersh’s “philosophy is that the environment needs to change for special needs kids,” she said, arguing that by integrating special needs students within the general education population they learn to adapt to their environment.

Ms. Winter’s comments were echoed by Richard Burns, the East Hampton superintendent, who pointed out that prior to becoming a superintendent he was the head of pupil personnel services, a department that oversees special education.  “Educationally, it is all wrong,” he said of Gersh Academy.

The superintendents were also vocal about the fact that unlike C.D.C.H., a Gersh Academy here would be part of a private institution with several branches, and not chartered by the state. An annual student fee of $55,000 has been estimated, and Mr. Burns called the academy “a definite money drain.”

Federal law states that every child in need of individualized services is entitled to a free education. “If our district refuses to send a student to Gersh,” Mr. Burns warned, “We could then get sued, which is a very costly thing.” Ms. Winter also expressed concern about that, adding that she had firsthand experience of such litigation at the Longwood School District, where she was formerly employed. 

The Gersh Academy website states that it is a New York State-approved provider of teacher training for the needs of children with autism.

 

They expressed the belief that the less restrictive, more integrated environment provided in the local schools for special needs students better serves children with disabilities.

 

There are 56 students with autism now enrolled in schools between Southampton and Montauk, Ms. Winter said. Of those, approximately half are in general education classes, while the others attend the Suffolk County Board of Cooperative Educational Services learning center in Westhampton Beach. Placement is determined by district special education committees, and those students who attend the BOCES center are there with the goal of eventually joining the general education population. On the other hand, Mr. Burns said of Gersh Academy, “My feeling is that once a student goes there, they stay there.”

The East Hampton superintendent also explained that of the 13 autistic students in his district, only 5 have been identified as requiring the more specialized services provided at BOCES. There would not be enough students enrolling at Gersch Academy, should it come to pass, for it to be a viable business, he said. “Parents are very happy with the level of service and opportunities we provide their special needs children,” he said.

The building sought by the academy is on land leased from the town. While its owner, the former C.D.C.H., has reportedly come to an agreement with Gersh Academy, the town would have to reassign the lease. 

At the meeting, East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell finally summarized the discussion. “So, you’re here to advise the board that the school districts oppose the transfer of the lease from C.D.C.H. to Gersh Academy, correct?”

“Absolutely,” Mr. Burns replied.

With reporting by Joanne Pilgrim