EDCO participants overcome social challenges

A quote hangs on the wall of the EDCO-Manville Partners Program. The little-known program, which was established at the high school eight years ago, teaches life skills along with the core academic curriculum to students with social challenges. Photo by Kendall McGowan.
A quote hangs on the wall of the EDCO-Manville Partners Program. The little-known program, which was established at the high school eight years ago, teaches life skills along with the core academic curriculum to students with social challenges. Photo by Kendall McGowan.

Walk into room 124 on a typical Monday afternoon and one might be confused about why this class is not on the third floor. A big projector at the center displays an objective from last week: “Friday 1/10/14 – To practice interpreting nuclear equations and to predict the products of specific nuclear reactions.”

Look more closely, though, and some differences jump out. First, instead of small desks or lab benches, six large wooden tables occupy the room, in two rows of three. A student sits at each of the three desks in the front row using his or her individual MacBook Air laptop to work on a task the chemistry teacher has assigned. The three mostly work silently, occasionally talking with each other.

The students in Room 124 make up one-third of this year’s EDCO (Education Collaborative) – Manville Partners Program. The program, established eight years ago, “provides comprehensive academic instruction as well as intensive social and life skills instruction to academically capable adolescents diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and related challenges,” according to its website.

Students come from 18 school districts in surrounding towns. According to program director and teacher Natalie Labouchere, the program pays for the two rooms it rents in the high school from funding provided by the students’ home districts.

Pam MacIver, a parent of a senior in the program, said her family decided to look for a program for their daughter, Valerie, when she was a freshman at Lexington High School.

“If Valerie were to attend some of the other programs , we felt like she would feel punished somehow for not being able to keep up at Lexington High,” MacIver said.

“None of that was present at EDCO,” she said. “The staff seemed to understand kids who are on the autism spectrum, where their struggles lie and not to blame their struggles on bad behavior.”

Valerie, now a senior, said in her first year in EDCO she focused on organizational skills.

“I’d open up a binder, and I wouldn’t know where to begin to put the dividers in. That was just totally overwhelming,” she said. “From that, to now being a few years later merged into Craft of Writing and Spanish 3H is just a big deal for me.”

This past October, Valerie participated in a roundtable discussion in a psychology class at Harvard University. Valerie spoke with another EDCO student about what it is like to live on the autism spectrum, her mother said. Pam MacIver called this the highlight and  culmination of Valerie’s progress in the program.

“To go from feeling so uncomfortable and so stressed by school that she couldn’t attend for several weeks in a row, to the point where she was able to get in front of a class of college students and very articulately answer all the questions they had about what it’s like being on the spectrum,” Pam said. “We just came out of there feeling high as a kite.”

Besides teaching the four academic subjects, the program has weekly social skills groups, life skills groups and transition planning groups. Labouchere, who is also an English teacher, explained that in the life skills group, for example, the students might work on learning unwritten social rules. Most students naturally learn these rules, Labouchere said, but students in the program need direct instruction to understand them.

In Labouchere’s English classes, she tries to break down assignments carefully.

“For instance, one day I’m going to say the components of an introductory paragraph are like this. And then I’m going to structure it with a structure template. I’m going to do it piece by piece and then I’m going to bring it together. And then the next time we write an assignment I’m going to provide less scaffolding, so they’ll be independent slowly,” Labouchere said. “It’s explicit social instruction versus it just sort of happens in the teenage world. They can handle the content at a grade level, just maybe not the amount of writing or the amount of homework, depending on the student.”

As students go through EDCO, some begin to take classes in the mainstream. Valerie said she has had a lot of fun taking English and Spanish with the rest of her grade this year. In her English class, she was surprised to hear gossip that had previously been unusual to her.

“Wow, this is radical for me,” she said to herself after listening to the gossip. “Because I hadn’t had the typical high school experience, so to listen to their drama, which was so different than my own, was just so much fun.”

Next year, Valerie plans to either participate in a transitional program or continue in a fifth-year program offered by EDCO. She said she is confident that what she has learned over the past four years will prepare her well for whichever she chooses.

Jeremy Margolis can be contacted at [email protected]