RISE offers a community within the high school for neurodivergent students



Devoted to teaching academic and life skills to students on the autism spectrum or with similar disabilities, the RISE (Reaching for Independence through Structured Education) program offers neuro divergent students their own tight knit community.

Students living with disabilities are often overlooked in public school systems, and they can struggle connecting with classmates. The RISE (Reaching for Independence through Structured Education) community offers neurodivergent students a place to learn functional and academic skills while also being a part of a tight-knit community.

The RISE community is a sub-separate program within the high school that is devoted to students on the autism spectrum or with other similar disabilities. Students are taught both academic and life skills from mainstream-style math to functional skills, like how to put on deodorant or read a bank statement.

According to RISE teacher Katelyn Parisi, the community aspect of RISE is what makes it worthwhile for its students and teachers.

“I get to build a really close-knit community in my class. That’s one of the best parts of it. I like to think of us almost as a family. We really build a strong community, and I like to build as close of a relationship with my students as I can to build trust, so that we can make progress with academics and beyond,” Parisi said.

Julia James, the mother of a RISE student, said this community makes students feel more comfortable in the school as a whole.

“They give her more confidence moving around in the community, which is absolutely wonderful. And they help her with all her other academics and stuff, but I really do feel like I have a network,” James said. “If there’s ever any situation that [my daughter] Zoe is going through, or even for myself, I can reach out to Lindsay [her teacher] or somebody. And if Lindsay isn’t the right person, she would connect me to the right person to talk to.”

RISE Behavioral Analyst Matt Schiff said the community aspect of the program is equally as important to the teachers.

“There’s such a great community aspect of this program. Any one of the RISE teachers, myself included, could be having just a terrible day,” Schiff said. And we’re like, ‘I feel like I can’t teach anybody anything, what am I doing here?’ and there’s seven other staff members that are right there to say, ‘I felt like that last week, don’t worry about it. Let me go hop in your class, I’ve got some extra energy today, I can help out.’ That’s a really, really great part of working here.”

Lindsay Strauss, a teacher at the RISE program, said the COVID-19 pandemic has created even more challenges for the program and its students.

“I think some of the students are better able to understand what’s happening and better able to wear their masks and be responsible and understand the six feet rules, while it’s a challenge for other students. I also think being home for as long as we were in the spring brought some significant challenges to our students,” Strauss said.

Parisi said RISE students are especially affected by the difficulty of the remote formats of school.

“Being on the computer all the time is hard for everybody, as we both know, but it can be much, much harder for these students. You might notice that reading social cues and things like that on the computer is so hard, but then it’s even more so exaggerated for the students, and so those are really big things,” Parisi said.

Schiff said that sometimes it’s not clear whether the COVID-19 pandemic is the cause of RISE students’ behavior.

“There’s been a ton of not directly noticeable issues. Some kids come in just really tired. And they’re not always able to articulate ‘I got bad sleep,’ or ‘I’m just feeling down in general from being at home for months’” Schiff said. “And that may pop out in them yelling in class for no reason, or just walking out of the room. We’ve seen a lot of behaviors that seem like they’re coming out of nowhere, but are probably linked to just the general drain that we all feel from being stuck in this world.”

Schiff said despite these issues, there have been some silver linings for RISE students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Oftentimes, the school being so busy and crowded makes it hard for our students to get around. So the extra space has been a nice buffer,” Schiff said. “Also, because we have to stay in the classrooms, some of our students do poorly with transitions, and so that’s been nice for them to just kind of be in one room where they can keep all of their things and they don’t have to share materials as much as they used to.”

The RISE teachers helped students and their parents stay connected during the early days of the pandemic, according to James.

“It was really good. In the beginning of the pandemic, we felt isolated and by ourselves, and then our program and the people from RISE were there in such an abundance of ways for us. They kept us connected,” James said.

Schiff said students reaching their goals is one of the best parts of the program.

“It’s awesome seeing any one of our students achieve anything, whether learning to tie their shoe, or they’re finally able to identify the letters in their name. These things come at not random, but like really unplanned intervals of time,” Schiff said. “So you never know what day you’re going to come in, and something that we’ve been working on for months is all of a sudden going to have clicked.”

In the school as a whole, RISE students might have a harder time connecting with other communities, but they still want to connect, Schiff said.

“RISE is a group, just like all other groups here at the school, who are, for the most part, less able to verbalize or show that they want to be included with other people. They have overlapping interests with lots of other students in the school. They just don’t have the skills to go up and find someone in the halls and notice clues that other people like that and have a conversation about it,” Schiff said.

Schiff said despite this layer of difficulty, the RISE program is still an integral part of the high school community.

“RISE and students of different abilities are no different than students of different races or nationalities. It’s people that we might not all interact with on a day-to-day basis,” Schiff said. “But we’re all in classes together. We’re all a part of the same community here. It’s maybe more difficult with our students, but I’ve seen so many typical students here in Brookline that are so awesome and motivated and want to interact with RISE students.”