Greenport elementary school introduces new program to support students on the autism spectrum

Greenport Elementary School students with autism spectrum disorder will no longer have to leave the district to receive needed services thanks to a new program.

At the beginning of this academic year, the school established a classroom dedicated to students on the spectrum.

Special education teacher Meagan Haviland and her team of two aides are in that classroom every day to work with students in the program.

“Their passion to help these children and be a part of their day is amazing,” said special education director and elementary school principal Joseph Tsaveras. “They really go above and beyond. They do things that make it special for them every single day.”

To build and facilitate the program, the district hired a behavior specialist from Helping Hands Family, an autism services provider with locations in East Northport, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The organization offers applied behavior analysis therapy, an approach designed to help children on the autism spectrum develop their social and emotional skills. 

“We’ve had great success with having a behavior specialist not only for [Ms. Haviland’s] class but to support us and our staff as well,” Mr. Tsaveras said.

In addition to the on-site behavior specialist, Ms. Haviland works closely with occupational, physical and speech therapists. 

The structure of the class is unique, in that the students have only one or two traditional lessons each day, Ms. Haviland said. 

Typically, the class convenes in the morning and again at the end of the day, and students pursue activities based in either science or English language arts. During the time in between, students work in a center-based program that includes one-on-one instruction with the aides and Ms. Haviland. During that one-on-one instruction, students have the option to work with an aide playing academic-based puzzles or games meant to develop fine motor skills.

They can also take advantage of an independent workstation, an individual desk where students can focus on an activity like handwriting. They rotate every 15 to 20 minutes, which allows Ms. Haviland to have time with each student and observe and evaluate their progress.

Each student in the program is also assigned an iPad equipped with Proloquo2Go, an augmentative and alternative communication program that makes it easier for them to communicate their needs and wants.

At certain points during the school day, such as during gym or recess, the students also interact with the general student population — another benefit, according to Mr. Tsaveras, of being able to offer the program in their home district.

Ms. Haviland charts everything that goes on daily with each student to track their individual progress. The district is already seeing a lot of improvement.

“We’re at the end of quarter three and the growth that we’ve seen with the students in that class has been fantastic,” Mr. Tsaveras said. “[The team has] been able to give the tools needed for students to be able to communicate with adults and with each other and that’s one of the biggest pieces that I’ve seen that has made this class really grow, even hearing from parents on how their child is doing at home, it just makes you feel warm inside that we’re doing something of high quality for our students, they’re getting a lot out of it, not only at school but it’s impacting home life.” 

Ms. Haviland also maintains a notebook for each student that is sent home daily to keep parents updated on their child’s progress and status. Ozlem Artukmac, Greenport’s assistant director for special education, said the district also provides parent training.

To protect privacy, the district declined to say how many students are participants of this program.

“It’s just a smaller class setting than the other special classes that are in the building,” Ms. Haviland said.

The closest school to offer a similar program is about an hour away, according to Ms. Artukmac.

“There aren’t many [schools] out there on eastern Long Island [that offer an autism program,]” she said, “so knowing that and knowing that we had students that would benefit from being here in their home school district, being with their families, their peers, their friends, that’s why we decided to form this autism classroom.”

Mr. Tsaveras and Ms. Artukmac began talking about starting the program in 2021, but needed to find and train the right staff, identify the right support agencies and ensure that an appropriate classroom was ready for students before launching it this past September. And as the program moves ahead in its first year, the district continues to look for opportunities to improve it.

“We’re still growing the program, we’re still adding pieces as we go along,” he said. “As we see need, we’ll go out and get something if we feel that it’s going to benefit our students … we’re always trying to find ways to improve and make our program even better.”