Westchester Exceptional Children’s School In North Salem Believes Every Student Needs To Belong


Today, it seems like every school child has a diagnosis and an expensive IEP to go with it. In the other extreme of the so called good old days, special education didn’t even exist – much less a notion of what society should do with what were once known as “handicapped” children. “You went to a hospital or an institution,” says Linda Zinn, director of the Westchester Exceptional Children’s School in North Salem. But just because there’s been great progress, it doesn’t mean the present has overcompensated in accordance with the past, as much work still needs to be done.

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Laurie Cameron and her son never felt a feeling of belonging in the previous schools he attended before being accepted at WEC 10 years ago. “He might as well have had a neon sign saying I’m different and I don’t belong,” says Cameron.

Seeing Luke completely demoralized by the age of 11, mom was told to run not walk at the opportunity WEC was offering. Just entering on the scene to visit, Cameron could feel an energy that evoked optimism, inclusion and especially joy.

But just because Luke had been diagnosed with multiple developmental delays doesn’t mean he experienced any hesitation at the prospect. “He’s not verbal, and he looked at me as if to say, ‘really, there’s a place where I can belong. And I can go here,’” she recalled.

As stated, such a rescue was universally out of the question in 1969 and WEC’s founder refused to succumb to it for her “handicapped” daughter. “You know what I’ll do, I’ll start a school so she founded WEC,” Zinn recalled the words of her predecessor, who just died last year.

Kicking WEC off in a two room school house in Croton Falls, Murphy hired a couple of staff members and enrolled the first students with a big heart and a grand vision. “She was way ahead of her time,” says Zinn.

44 years later, WEC serves children with disabilities like autism and a wide range of speech and learning impairments. And they do so as a team. “Our philosophy is we’re all here to help each other,” says Zinn.

Of course, all the prerequisite advanced degrees accompany the teaching staff, but the factor that creates distance from others in the field does not appear in any official transcript. “What sets them apart is their compassion, dedication and loyalty. They also believe in what they are doing as they see the accomplishments that are created for our students,” says Zinn

This involves an interdisciplinary curriculum of individual living skills, academics, recreating, socialization and what any

student needs in the end - the real life experience and tools to transition to work and independence. “We have a phenomenal work training program,” says Zinn.

Between the ages of 16 and 21, students learn prevocational skills, work with job coaches and take a turn in the school’s café as cooks, servers and cash register clerks. “We’ve had many students go onto work in fast food restaurants and secure retail positions,” says Zinn.

One student actually came back to work as part of WEC’s work training program and later joined the armed forces, but for all the good feeling that accrues, it’s still a journey, according to Cameron.

The emotional burden Luke arrived with him didn’t miraculously evaporate when he walked in WEC’s doors. “He had some serious self-esteem and emotional issues to heal,” says Cameron, who lives in Patterson.

That said, WEC doesn’t simply let kids hide behind their diagnosis and use it as an excuse. But persevering to the destination is a collaboration that doesn’t leave students carrying issues all by themselves. “We are in this together,” says Cameron of the shared struggle at WEC.

Parents get a respite too for all the pain they’ve endured. “They have seen their children very unhappy but you then see a child who comes home saying, ‘I like school, I want to go to school – it’s a huge relief,” says Zinn.

Unfortunately, as is with everything, WEC is feeling the economics of the day. “We are in need of funding to keep our school open,” says Zinn, and she hopes some exposure can ease the burden.

Laurie Cameron takes it from there. “What they truly deserve is to have somebody shout it from the rooftop that if you don’t know about this school, you should,” says Cameron.

She leaves it to you.

For more info www.wecschool.org/ 

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Article Written By richmonetti

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Last updated on 24-07-2016 2K 0

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