How programs for kids with Autism differ at Cherry Hill East and West?

March 14, 2020

Up until about a decade ago, eighth-grade students with autism in the Cherry Hill school district were faced with the reality that their local high school could not offer them the kind of educational support that they needed, according to former District Supervisor of Pupil Services and current East Assistant Principal Ms. Rebecca Metzger.

“We had a group of kids in middle school who wanted to go to their local high school so we developed a program at West…the program was developed at West because that was their…neighborhood school,” said Metzger.

Thus, the program for students with autism at Cherry Hill West was born, a program that has since been recognized highly by the state, according to Metzger.

Students that have more significant needs…are referred to West as part of their individualized education plan because we have the teachers and the programs and the classrooms and the students…there together because it can be very isolating if you’re the only student who has…this type of significant need and there’s not other students around you that are having those same experiences and having those same needs”

— Metzger

The program at West is hyper-focused on ensuring that students at all levels of the spectrum are prepared for the wide world that lays ahead of them after exiting the district. Vocational job preparation courses, like West’s ShopWest program – in which students actively manage a supermarket – are an important facet of this. Vocational reading and math classes are also offered. There was even a production of Peter Pan in which students with special needs could act that was organized by one of West’s special education teachers, and some members of West’s DECA team with autism have won awards in the past.

“At West, we have a program that’s designed for students who…need more development of life skills or independent-living skills, or obtaining post-secondary employment, like getting jobs,” said Metzger. “They might have more needs.”

Another option that is available to West students with autism is to stay an extra year in high school before graduation. During this extra year, the student would receive additional help with job preparedness and would also focus on job placement. This way, the student would have a job lined up right out of high school, alleviating a common fear for most families that have students with autism. This option, however, is not commonly employed at Cherry Hill East.

“They have job placements or development out in the community,” said Metzger.

While there are programs for students at East with autism, the district does not have the resources to build East’s program up to the level of West without endangering the overall level of service that the district can provide. Before ninth grade, it is district policy that a meeting be held with parents of children with special needs to determine an individualized education plan (IEP) for that student throughout their high school career. During that meeting, the programs at both East and West are explained, and most of the time, parents and students choose which high school would fit best. Sometimes, however, a family may be referred to West, though they are not required to make that choice.  

“Students that have more significant needs…are referred to West as part of their individualized education plan because we have the teachers and the programs and the classrooms and the students…there together because it can be very isolating if you’re the only student who has…this type of significant need and there’s not other students around you that are having those same experiences and having those same needs,” said Metzger.

The services that East offers are geared more toward higher-functioning students with autism. These services include social skills classes, speech classes, and behavioral support, but do not reach into the vocational sphere, like the services at West do. Ultimately, East’s programs

“We teach behaviors that are less noticeable so that a student is better integrated into not only the high school, but also post-secondary life,” said Metzger.

While many stark differences exist between the programs at East and West, there are some prevailing similarities. Both schools try to maximize the interaction students with autism have with their peers, for one. Additionally, both schools offer varying levels of support based on scholastic need, like in-class resource classes, self-contained classes, and resource center classes (better known as Concepts classes). In-class resource classes refer to a classroom environment where a regular-ed teacher teaches in conjunction with a special-ed teacher; self-contained classes refer to a class for students whose performance in a given subject is three or more years below their current grade level – these classes are smaller and are taught solely by a special-ed teacher. Resource center classes are also taught entirely by a special-ed teacher, but are taught more at grade level than self-contained classes. Students with autism at both East and West participate in a wide range of classes from the Honors track to self-contained classes.

“We’re proud of our programs,” said Metzger. “We’re proud of what we do.”

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