By Christopher Alvarez
Each year, the schools in the 4201 Schools Association, which lobbies for New York state students who are blind, deaf, and physically challenged, select two or three pupils each as advocates—to share their stories of success with members of the state Assembly. The idea is to bolster funding for special education and for the students to show that they are “more alike than they are different,” as Kim Brussell, a vice president at one of the schools, The Henry Viscardi School, put it.
The annual event, called Advocacy Day, normally takes place at the state capital, Albany, but this year, thanks to the pandemic, it occurred via a screen. Nonetheless it was a busy day for both legislators and students from the Association as they worked to come to a mutual understanding on funding.
On January 27th, ten schools—Cleary School for the Deaf, The Henry Viscardi School, Lavelle School for the Blind, Lexington School for the Deaf, Rochester School for the Deaf, St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf, St. Joseph’s School for the Deaf, St. Mary’s School for the Deaf, New York School for the Deaf and The New York Institute for Special Education—joined forces for the 4201 Schools Association‘s Virtual Advocacy Day. The point was to persuade state legislators to help children with disabilities lead independent and fulfilled lives by sustaining financial support for the schools, especially during COVID-19.
Some 16 Senate and Assembly members met online with several students, who told them how the schools have helped them grow.
In total, the association asked for $5 million to go toward design and construction services for capital projects, to purchase appropriate personal protection equipment, and to ensure the safety of students, as they’ve remained open for in-person instruction. However, one of the schools, The Henry Viscardi School, asked for $903,000 to support individual assistants to continue their one-on-one attention, because more students are coming in. “Our enrollment is growing but our funding cap is not,” said Brussell.
The funding is critical, according to John D. Kemp, president of the school. “This is about helping students thrive, not just meet the low bar of free, appropriate public education,” he said.
Among the legislators who met with the students were State Senator Shelley Mayer; Senator Timothy Kennedy; Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins; Senator Jim Gaughran; Assemblyman Charles Lavine; Assemblyman Michael Benedetto and his chief of staff John Collazzi; Assembly member Marcela Mitaynes; Assembly member Gina Sillitti, representing District 16; and Thomas J. Abinanti, who chairs the Committee on People with Disabilities. At the end of the day, the Association’s co-chair, Dr. Bernadette Kappen, of 4201 schools, thanked State Senator Mayer and Assemblyman Benedetto for hearing them out.
Virtual Advocacy Day is not the same as in-person and that is why Andrew Cherico, a high school senior at Viscardi, “knew that we had to represent to the best of our ability.” But Kemp said that it wasn’t as hard as the students thought it would be to get state legislators to listen, because the schools had already built connections in the past, former politicians who encouraged sitting politicians to give the students an opportunity.
“I feel very excited that the school chose me,” said Andrew Cherico, a student at The Viscardi School, in Alberson, NY, a K-12 school for kids with severe physical disabilities. It was founded in 1962 by Dr. Henry Viscardi, Jr., a disability rights advocate who championed the cause of equality and employment of disabled people in the workforce. With just over 175 students, Viscardi is one of ten schools that provide the kind of one-on-one attention that challenged students need in order to excel. It is this that sets them apart from other public and private schools. “They had really great unique stories about what it was like going to a public school or a hospital setting school and then coming to Viscardi,” said Brussell. “They were able to tell the story of how different and how much more successful they’ve been.”
Previously, Cherico attended a public school in Westchester, but he says he felt the school was not providing the necessities he required to have a good education. “When I transferred to Viscardi, everything felt like it was made for me,” Cherico said. “My grades went up tremendously and I’m in the Honors Society.” Thinking ahead, Cherico says his first choice for college is University of Central Florida, as a communications major, “to be a journalist or an announcer,” a decision he says he would’ve never thought of in his old school.
Students at Viscardi, working behind plastic shields. (photo courtesy of Viscardi)
Although no decision has been made yet, the representatives of the Viscardi School say they are positive that they did a good job. “It’s an honor to go speak to the senators,” Cherico said.