In a few weeks, 14-year-old Elijah Lee will be entering high school. It’s a big transition for any teenager, but especially for Elijah, who has autism. His mother says he is excited to go to a new school with new students and different teachers, but she fears the transition to a bigger school will have a negative impact on his academic and emotional progress.
In the meantime, Jasmine Lee Phillips is happy that Elijah was able to connect with other teens through activities such as building Legos and learning to play the piano during her second summer at Nassan’s Place, a Newark community group providing educational and recreational activities for children with autism and their families.
“I think I’m having the hardest time transitioning,” Lee Phillips, who worked at her son’s middle school in previous years, said of Elijah going to high school. “I’m not there; I’ve never worked there before. I don’t know what it is.
Like other school systems nationwide, Newark Public Schools has struggled to provide adequate services to its special education students — last year the district served 6,527 students, nearly 17% of the total number of students enrolled. During the summer, some schools run programs for elementary and middle school students who have disabilities, including autism, hearing loss, intellectual disabilities, and emotional regulation disorders. But a lack of confidence in programming and staffing shortages combined with negative experiences with remote learning have caused many parents to seek summer services outside of what the district offers.
Nadine Wright-Arbubakrr is the president and founder of Nassan’s Place and the mother of soon-to-be 18-year-old Nassan, who is also autistic. She started the organization nearly 10 years ago so parents wouldn’t have to struggle to find affordable services and programs like she did.
“There has been no place for our babies to go,” Wright-Arbubakrr said. “Some parents are overwhelmed and feel like they can’t. You must create your own village.
Wright-Arbubakrr coordinates the seven-week paid summer camp, which is currently at capacity for 25 students and 20 others on the waiting list. This is her second year running it with help from the city, which provided financial support and space to George Washington Carver Elementary School for the camp. More than half of the students come from Newark public schools, and the program also caters to Orange students. Nassan’s Place offers outings and events year-round, including a Saturday basketball camp for children and adults with autism and day trips to local parks.
Last year, Elijah’s middle school teacher decided not to teach at the summer camp run by the school he usually attends. This prompted Lee Phillips to research alternatives. She heard about Nassan’s Place through word of mouth.
“I don’t trust a whole bunch of people with my kids, especially with my Elijah. But I trust them,” the mother-of-two said. “I trust them enough to leave him, come home and wait to pick him up at 4 p.m. He will go every year until he can’t anymore.
The summer program runs until mid-August and keeps kids busy by taking them on field trips to a bowling alley, reinforcing educational and sensory learning by doing arts and crafts, and teaching them to be more independent. Wright-Arbubakrr recruits and monitors volunteers to assist with chaperone outings.
“If I don’t trust them with Nassan, I don’t trust them with the kids here,” Wright-Arbubakr said.
Local businesses and community organizations support the program by donating meals and movie tickets and lending their time.
Shalene Willis is the mother of Khalil, a 9-year-old autistic boy who also attends Nassan’s Place summer program and events throughout the year. She and her wife moved to Newark three years ago and struggled to get Khalil a proper education during the pandemic. Willis didn’t know of other parents going through similar experiences and was tired of leaving Khalil in the care of others. But since joining the summer program at Nassan’s Place, it has given her family a community she trusts and can relate to.
“You become friends with these parents and your children make friends where they normally wouldn’t make friends,” she said.
Elizabeth Athos, an attorney at the Education Law Center who focuses on special education issues, said New Jersey continues to be “bottom of the list” for families and children with disabilities. His organization is one of many advocacy groups in the state that have spent years fighting for legal aid to help families with autistic children. These students have been particularly affected by the disruptions caused by COVID.
“There have been so many challenges for school districts and different types of families that I honestly don’t know how well a district and families have been able to catch their breath and plan for the year ahead,” Athos said. . “I’m sure there’s a lot of variability in how it’s done.”
Newark is committed to focusing more of its resources on supporting the special needs community in the area. During a ceremony earlier this month, Newark officials unveiled the city’s first park designed with a separate section with sensory play equipment for children with autism and special needs. At the unveiling, Mayor Ras Baraka said the city “has been woefully inadequate” to provide aid for children with special needs and pledged to make things better with input from Wright-Arbubakrr, who advocated for more services.
“None of this happens without Nadine having a conversation with me and us about what we need to do for kids on the spectrum here in the city of Newark,” Baraka said. “We’ve been woefully inadequate for a long time, not just here, but in the state of New Jersey.”
The Newark Public School District also plans to allocate more resources to its special education programs this year. During last year’s budget hearing, Newark Superintendent Roger Leon said the district would partner with local organizations such as the Rutgers ABA Center and STAR Autism to provide more services.
“We already have some brilliant partnerships underway and we will aggressively redefine the work we do for our most needy students,” Leon said during the budget presentation.
Parents whose children attend Nassan’s Place are eager for change and grateful that their children have found fun this summer.
Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at [email protected]