Above the Standard

Article By: Sara Nixon
Article Date: 01/15/2008

How a Specialized School Uses Unique Approaches to Reach All Learners


Paoli, PA

You see him sitting in the corner. He is in his favorite blue chair – blue, not black, brown, purple, green or orange; has to be blue- and his face is expressionless. His eyes look toward your direction but they are not wanting, desire no communication and if you were to approach him, he might recoil – if he even realizes you are there. He rocks himself at an even tempo, keeping pace with something neither you nor I can hear, feel nor comprehend. There is something inside of him, but how is it extracted? How does one navigate the murky, sometimes explosive, continents of a brain that is characterized by Autism?
Now, imagine this same child sitting in the grass on a sunny autumn day, smiling, part of a small group of peers playing “Howdy Neighbor.” When it is his turn, he does not make eye contact with his partner, but he still smiles, maybe even giggles as he repeats the words “howdy neighbor.”

The cheerful tones of children’s voices echo throughout the campus of the Vanguard School, and it would appear to an outsider that this is a school like any other: how incorrect they would be.
The Vanguard School in Paoli, Pennsylvania is a school designed to provide an innovative, comprehensive education for children who have special learning needs. Of the 230 students who attend school here, from ages 4-21, about 60% have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and the remaining 40% have exceptionalities including Neurological Impairment (NI), Severe Emotional Disturbance (SED), and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), among other learning differences. Teachers and therapists use unique methods to answer the above questions, and it is with patience, creativity and behavioral approaches that success is achieved.

While many public schools (even some which are Blue Ribbon) have suffered the untimely demise that is standards-based teaching, for 50 years the Vanguard School has sought to establish appropriate guidelines and measures by which to teach and assess children who come here with exceptional needs. The little boy who was rocking in the corner has come out of his private world of isolation and joined a select few members of the world outside. He might have had this opportunity to perform in public school, but here, he gets to participate in experiential learning on a campus that is rich in therapeutic nature and wildlife with a faculty that is expertly trained to accommodate his learning – not trained to force him to accommodate a standard.

Although small, Vanguard has been extremely successful, yet even people who live in Chester County hear the name Vanguard and associate it with a sailing brig and institutional investments, which is not an affiliate of the school at all. To achieve this success and provide a tuition-free education for families to attend here, the school depends on private donations, an Annual Fund, Fundraising Events, grants and reimbursement from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Educational services provided by the school include Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Psychological Counseling and Speech/Language Therapies, all of which are outlined in each child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Students also have specials like music, art, library, physical education, P.A.C.E. (Program of Adventure-based Counseling Experiences), and computers. All students can participate in the Career Development Program, which prepares them for life skills necessary to hold a job and become a contributing member of society. In the Lower School, this means going on field trips and listening to speakers in all different aspects of the job market. In the Middle and Upper School students have hands-on training opportunities both on- and off-campus. Teachers intertwine the fabrics of social learning with those of specific position skill-sets to encourage students and meet a wide range of needs simultaneously.

A Vanguard Education is further enmeshed into a student’s life (for consistency and to reduce summer regression) with an Extended School Year (ESY) Program and a SUMMER MATTERS Program. ESY is provided for students who need additional support during the summer to reach a certain benchmark as indicated on their IEP or to maintain consistency for a student who might balk at a momentous change in their routine (and by “balk” I mean have severe tantrums). SUMMER MATTERS is a Program composed of experiential learning opportunities and is open to all students, including children who do not attend Vanguard.
Students who attend SUMMER MATTERS can choose from a variety of social learning programs, which hone the skills of horseback riding, sailing, performing arts, wooden boat building, orienteering and adventure programs, with several others . In this instance, the Vanguard mission is still accomplished, but students have a chance to learn in an inclusive environment, the way it will be when they graduate.
The administration at Vanguard has a remarkable educational vision – one that includes expanding the initiatives that are already in place and broadening scope of those initiatives, along with the general public’s impression of what it means to have autism.

The little boy in the beginning of this article should be a haunting image of a former diagnosis; the little boy in the grass is the human being we’re learning to cultivate and cherish for what he can teach us.

The Vanguard School
Founded in 1959,The Vanguard School in Paoli, PA is a non-profit day school which takes pride is providing an innovative, comprehensive curriculum to support students with Special Needs, and encourages them to become productive, contributing members of society. Exceptionalities served at Vanguard include those on the Autism Spectrum, Neurological Impairment and Severe Emotional Disturbance. Please find us on the web at: www.vanguardschool-pa.org.


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