Ainsley Jones looks out at the crowd at the 2017 We Are One 20th Anniversary dinner May 4, 2017, at the V.I.P. Country Club in New Rochelle. (Photo: Deborah J Karson Photography)

‘We Are One’ Bridges Gap in New Rochelle Schools

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NEW ROCHELLE, NY — Edie Barasch’s son came home one day and told his mom his younger brother might not be ready to start school at Ward Elementary.

Barasch eventually found out her older son had seen students bullying a special needs peer, and he was afraid for his younger sibling, who is nonverbal and developmentally disabled, to go to school there.

This and other issues sparked Barasch and another mother of children with special needs, Elyse Braun, to start a special education inclusion awareness event through the Special Education Parent Teacher Association, or SEPTA, called “We Are One.”

That was 20 years ago, and it continues to be an event many look forward to each year. This year’s dinner was May 4.

What started as an evening to recognize individuals in the New Rochelle school system who go out of their way to foster a welcoming environment for students with disabilities, has transformed into a more than 400-attendee award and fundraiser event with the community.

“We wanted to find a way to raise awareness, to sort of bridge the gap between general education students and their experiences and special education students and their experiences,” Barasch said. “We wanted to create more opportunities, or at least raise awareness for the communities, and the school community at large, to sort of get on board and understand and really be part of what our vision was.”

During the first three years of the We Are One initiative in the late-’90s, Braun and Barasch said it was hard to get people to understand why bridging the gap between the students was so important.

So, the SEPTA parents got creative and planned presentations for teachers, with the help of New Rochelle’s Director of Special Education Yvette Goorevitch, to explain why children with disabilities might need assistance on exams and why it’s important for them to be in the classroom with peers.

“We planned a series of luncheons within the school,” Braun recalled. “Yvette would get up and do a presentation and explain what test modifications were, why it’s not cheating, why they work … it was a consciousness-raising thing.”

Eventually, people started to catch on and the annual We Are One dinner and awards started getting buzz around the district. Soon, enough people attended the dinner that SEPTA started to bring in profits that could be used to fund grants for the district to do supplemental programs to continue their school inclusive initiatives.

The goal with the grants, according to Mary Jo Jacobs, co-chair of SEPTA, is to “ensure children really, holistically feel part of the broader population.”

Over the years, they have funded dozens of grants that go to programs like the “Kids on the Block” puppet show for elementary-aged students to learn about peers with disabilities, provided all fifth-graders with the book “Rain Reign” about a girl with autism and had the author come in to speak, and brought in the Lindamood-Bell reading program.

“Those funds over the years have gone to support many initiatives in the school district that we would not ordinarily have been able to ask our taxpayers to support,” said Goorevitch, who oversees the district’s special education department.

The SEPTA programs supplement the district’s investments in New Rochelle’s special education program. District officials are proposing to spend about $25 million on special education next school year, which is a $2.5 million increase over last year and would make up about 9.5 percent of the overall academic program budget.

Around the time “We Are One” started two decades ago, there were two integrated classrooms in the district. Now, all 10 school buildings in New Rochelle have classes that includes students with special needs.

On a recent day at Ward Elementary, fifth-grader Ainsley Jones was reading with her friend, Julia Cohen, a student with special needs, as part of a buddy reading program Jones helped start.

“I wanted to learn more about her and spend more time with her and her classmates so I went to my teacher … and I asked if some of us could work with Ms. Kinches’ class,” said Jones, who was a recipient of the student award at the We Are One dinner.

During her speech at the event, Jones said, “I believe that we should always include our friends in the things we do and share experiences together.”