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Lehigh’s Centennial School: A national leader in serving the special needs community



CNN recently showcased the Centennial School’s curriculum and student-teacher relationships.

The Centennial School of Lehigh University has been recommended for accreditation by the Middle States Commission on Secondary Schools.

Centennial School is a private day school for students with autism and severe behavioral and emotional disabilities. Long affiliated with Lehigh’s College of Education, the school has distinguished itself over the past 10 years as a national leader in the use of positive behavioral supports when working with children with special needs.

The recommendation is rare for alternative day schools like Centennial. The Middle States Commission on Secondary Schools routinely awards accreditation to public school districts and private schools, but it rarely recognizes the educational accomplishments of a school whose population consists of special needs children.

“We all know that good managers do things right; but leaders do the right things,” said Dr.Valerie Valenti, chair of the Middle States Validation Team that evaluated Centennial over a four-day period earlier this spring. “In choosing Accreditation for Growth, the Centennial School has shown that it has a cadre of leaders who understand much about what the right thing is.”

To earn recommendation, Centennial had to meet a set of 12 rigid protocols primarily focusing on four key areas: student performance, sustaining a culture of accountability, ongoing planning and monitoring, and a commitment to continuous improvement.

The recommendation helps reinforce Centennial’s position as a leader in serving the special needs community, says director Michael George.

“The Middle States’ recommendation confirms that children with emotional and behavioral problems can succeed in a safe, civil learning environment,” says George.

“Our teachers are committed to not only providing a high quality educational program for our students and their families, but one that is vibrant,” he says. “Our students want to be here. It’s the first time that many of them will be treated with respect and encouraged to succeed.”

Accolades aplenty

The Middle States accreditation comes at a critically important time, as national leaders and policy makers gathered in Washington, D.C. last week to discuss the mistreatment of children with autism and other emotional and behavioral disorders.

In a congressional hearing held by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education & Labor, educators and House members discussed, in detail, the abusive and deadly uses of seclusion and restraint in U.S. schools. Lehigh’s Centennial School was cited as a national model for creating a school environment that relies on positive supports, rather than physical restraints and seclusions, when working with children in challenging (and potentially injurious) situations.

In a timely, special investigative report published on its Web site, CNN reporters spoke of Centennial’s education philosophy and rich learning environment. It also posted an exclusive video showcasing the school’s curriculum and student-teacher relationships.

Centennial has earned accolades before. A January 2009 publication by the National Disability Rights Network titled “ School is Not Supposed to Hurt” cites Centennial School as an example of best practices in education, reporting, "The Centennial School of Lehigh University ... demonstrated that the use of positive behavioral supports can significantly reduce the use of restraint or seclusion in school for students with severe behavioral disorders."

The school has also been recognized by the American Institutes for Research for its innovative teaching methodologies and curriculum. A 2006 report by the organization recognized Centennial as an “exemplary” alternative program.

“This is a dangerous issue that has gone unnoticed for far too long, and the consequences of that inaction are now beginning to show," says George, who is in his 10th year as Centennial’s director.

"The truth is, students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders can learn to make positive changes in their lives if we take the time to teach them and treat them with the respect and dignity that should accompany all teaching,” he says. “If we focus on the positive and develop a culture that is supportive of them, then there's no telling what they can achieve, regardless of their disorder."

--Tom Yencho


Posted on Thursday, May 28, 2009

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