Brookwood Church embraces special needs students

 Messenger photos by John Matuszak

Capital University student Mary Cooley tutors Aaron Dotson in math, as part of a partnership with the Brookwood Community Learning Center  for special needs students. In addition to the uniquely tailored academic program, the 54 students in grades 7 through 12 also receive counseling and therapy sessions.

Within the sanctuary of Brookwood Presbyterian Church, a unique program flourishes that embraces teenagers whose special educational needs have left them with nowhere else to turn.

"These are kids with significant social interaction problems," explained Ellen Wristen, an attorney who helped establish the Brookwood Community Learning Center now in its sixth year at 2685 East Livingston Ave. "They don’t get the social cues the rest of us get."

The center works with 54 students in grades seven through 12, including those with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder and/or an autistic diagnosis.

Wristen describes them as bright but quirky kids who just don’t fit into the typical school setting.

These young people might not understand the concept of social space, and will talk to someone standing right in their face. Or they may talk loudly or bring up subjects inappropriate to the situation.

They have difficulty handling crowds and noise "so hallways and cafeterias tend to be a disaster," Wristen observed.

Some need to carry an object as a security blanket. Some cling to backpacks, in violation of security requirements. One girl who came to Brookwood brought a stuffed unicorn to her high school.

These behaviors make them targets for teasing by their peers, and a perplexing problem for teachers and administrators who just expect these kids to "grow up."

Academic performance suffers. The pressure builds, and the students "blow a gasket" and end up getting suspended or expelled, Wristen said.

Where do they go from there?

For many families, the program at Brookwood, which acts as a special needs resource center through the Scholars Academy charter school, has been a lifeline to salvage their children’s academic and emotional well-being.

"We were stuck in junior high with nowhere to send him," recalled Shelly Shepherd, whose son Jerad, has attended classes at Brookwood since eighth grade and is now scheduled to graduate at the end of the year. "This place saved Jerad."

Shepherd said she had tried unsuccessfully to get the Westerville schools to understand the needs of her son. There were times when he would come home from school and just break down.

The day before his eighth-grade year was to start, she saw a small notice in the newspaper about a meeting offering information on the Brookwood program.

Two days later, she had him enrolled. Apprehensive at first, she spent two weeks sitting outside of his classroom, waiting for the blow-up she was sure would come.

It didn’t happen.

"They totally changed Jerad. They understand everything about his special needs," Shepherd said. "He’s never upset here. There’s no reason for him to be upset."

Major benefits include small classes with four or five students, and one-on-one attention. The program employs two full-time and one part-time special education teachers, along with counselors, therapists and volunteer tutors.

"These kids need relationships," commented Glenn Byers, a social worker with the program. "They are starved for attention."

That attention allows the adults to focus on the specific needs of the students.

In a larger school, "they have learned to disappear," Byers said.  "Here, they can’t disappear."

Public schools have partnerships with service centers, but they tend to be short-term, Wristen said.

Area school districts are grateful to have Brookwood as a placement option. Reynoldsburg and Groveport-Madison provide transportation, although Columbus does not.

Unlike a treatment center, there is no length of stay at Brookwood. Students can remain through graduation.

Brookwood also has the flexibility to tailor the school day, which usually runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., for the individual. If a student is having trouble working around the group, they can come in at a later time. Or if they have an unproductive day, they can be asked to stay later.

Because it doesn’t charge tuition, Brookwood is available to families who are  economically disadvantaged.

"We get families who don’t have cars," Wristen said.

Breakfast and lunch is also provided.

Their students tend to be exceptionally bright. Byers remembered sitting in his office and hearing a lively conversation about Barak Obama coming from a classroom.

Only his office is nowhere near the classroom, the amplified volume being one of the traits of their special students.

Just another day at Brookwood.

Getting started

Wristen learned all about special education law while trying to get her son, Aaron, who had ADHD, into school.

She became an advocate for other families navigating through the thicket of statutes dealing with the rights of special needs students, and hosts frequent seminars on these and related issues.

Wristen spoke with the church’s pastors, Thomas Mori and John Birkner, about starting the service program and found them to be supportive. Birkner now serves as the program’s director.

With short notice, 20 parents came to the first meeting and signed up their children, 18 of whom finished the first year.

Special education teacher Anna Morbitzer works with Michael Stiffler on a reading project at the Brookwood Community Learning Center at Brookwood Presbyterian Church, which houses a learning service center for students with special needs. The program is in its sixth year and has 54 students enrolled.

Like the parents, teacher Anna Morbitzer was persuaded to come to Brookwood by the small classes and opportunity for individual attention.

"The instructors are tuned in to the kids. They assign the teacher that is right for the student," she said.

Morbitzer has been working on reading with Michael Stiffler, a tenth-grader from Gahanna who has been at the center for two months.

Stiffler, who has been diagnosed as ADHD along with Asperger’s Syndrome, likes the smaller classes and the shorter school day, as well as being with peers who  have special learning needs.

Morbitzer has made a deal with Michael, that if she reads "Resident Evil," one of his favorite books, he will read a literary classic, possibly "Moby Dick."

Mary Cooley, a Bexley resident and 2006 graduate of Bishop Hartley High School, is one of nine Capital University elementary education students who tutors at Brookwood, under a partnership that started two years ago.

Cooley has been impressed with the program and is considering becoming an intervention specialist.

One of her students, Aaron Dotson, who  has been at Brookwood for three years, knows what he prefers over his former school – "No bullies."

Open arms

The spacious church has proved to be the perfect setting to give everyone plenty of elbow room.

The congregation has opened its hearts to the program, as well, with several members, including a retired mathematician, volunteering as tutors.

Even the church’s receptionist, Helen Huntley, bakes cookies every day for the kids.

Wristen can’t imagine another church being as receptive to this mission as Brookwood has been.

The church even provides food baskets during the holidays and winter coats to its less well-off students.

The support even extends to the spiritual.

When Shelly Shepherd was in a coma after a car accident, Jerad felt close enough to Pastor Birkner that he called him to come to the hospital.

Birkner and Wristen also came to the funeral when Mrs. Shepherd’s mother died.

Shepherd admitted that the prospect of Jerad graduating is "bittersweet. We don’t want to leave."

She also recognizes that, without the program, he probably would not have completed his high school education.

Jerad is considering enrolling at Columbus State Community College.

This is a better fit for Brookwood’s graduates, rather than the sprawling Ohio State campus, Wristen said.

As for the Brookwood program itself, Wristen and Birkner are considering expanding the program to include students starting in fourth grade.

For information on the Brookwood program, call the church office at 235-3451.

School behavior problems will be addressed in a parent seminar at Brookwood Presbyterian Church, 2685 E. Livingston Ave. on Sunday, April 13 from 2:30 to 5  pm.  

Glenn Byers, LISW, will address student behavior problems.  Ellen Wristen, attorney, will address special education law as it relates to student behavior problems as well as suspensions and expulsions.

For questions or reservations, call the church office at 235-3451.  The seminar fee is $5 per person.  Scholarship assistance is available as needed.


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