By Alex Brosowsky
What happens when your K-8 school for children with complex challenges is so successful at making students feel safe, happy, and fulfilled that they don’t want to leave?
That was the struggle The Quaker School at Horsham (TQS) faced as we engaged in a strategic planning process for the majority of the 2018-2019 school year. Through focus groups, interviews, surveys, panel discussions, and visioning conferences, one clear message emerged across all of our constituencies:
Students and families wished they could have stayed at our school past grade 8.
Current students did not want to graduate to a new school. Parents wanted to keep their children where they were thriving. Alumni parents said the TQS years were the best of their children’s education.
After receiving this overwhelming feedback, the next step became clear: it was time for a high school.
TQS’s Board unanimously endorsed this endeavor, and donors generously contributed. Yet before we broke ground, we knew we needed to first dig deeper into our philosophy. A school is so much more than a building, and there are many fine high schools for students with learning disabilities in the Delaware Valley. What would set our high school apart? How could it serve a different need?
Our faculty and administration embarked on a year of research to find the answer: addressing the alarming rates of unemployment in people with disabilities.
These high rates of unemployment were true even for people with hidden disabilities like dyslexia and ADHD. They were true for college graduates, for those with advanced degrees, and for those who learned trades.
Why? Our research revealed that it was not the lack of job skills that caused unemployment, but rather soft skills like communication, organization, patience, perseverance, flexibility, and collaboration.
TQS set out to create a program focused on teaching high-school-aged students with learning differences the social and executive functioning skills they need for life and career success.
Rather than teaching job skills like a vocational program, we designed our program to provide a basic course of academic study, preparing students for two-year and sometimes four-year colleges, as well as a rigorous business literacy curriculum that teaches students how to succeed in the workplace.
We hired Independent School Management (ISM) and ISM’s CEO Roxanne Higgins to design a high school schedule that allows TQS students to spend a progressive amount of time off-campus working. We also selected the research-based Life Centered Education Curriculum from the Council for Exceptional Children as a base curriculum for business literacy and advising classes.
TQS began construction on a new high school wing in June 2020, and due to the heroic efforts of two trustees, the wing was opened on time and on budget in January 2021.
We began rolling out the high school program one grade at a time, giving us the ability to spend the year before researching, planning, and applying for each grade’s accreditation.
This year, we have amazing classrooms of students in grades 9-11. In grades 9 and 10, students are beginning to observe local businesses while also running the school store and the TQS dog treats business in which students bake, wrap, market, and sell the treats. They learn internet marketing for online sales, and they also distribute the treats in a few local shops.
In grade 11, students are traveling offsite and interning with local businesses. There are opportunities with pharmacies, software companies, health care institutions, and retail businesses. All students also receive Orton Gillingham reading instruction, as well as instruction in using assistive technologies such as text grabbers and speech-to-text.
Next school year, 2022-2023, TQS will have our first senior class.
The program is already fully enrolled, with 50 students expected in grades 9-12. These students are getting the preparation they need to find their future path — and we are thankful that The Quaker School at Horsham, with our new high school, has helped them take that next step forward with confidence.
About the author: Alex Brosowsky is the Head of School at The Quaker School at Horsham and the author of the Shine Together Blog and Podcast both available at www.quakerschool.org.