Special education school in Westchester Square adapts to virtual learning

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Biondi third grade teacher Nicole Garcia and one of her students Latonia Sparrow
Photo courtesy Zoom

Throughout the borough many children go without laptops and some have to share one device amongst several people as they continue to learn virtually.

But in Westchester Village, a nonprofit called Rising Ground operates a special education program, The Biondi School at 1529 Williamsbridge Rd., where students are thriving during the COVID crisis.

The school has created a “virtual school” for its students, with therapeutic supports for their learning, behavioral and emotional disorders and made sure those who do not have access to a computer at home are equipped with an iPad.

“Students who typically took longer in the classroom to warm up are more engaged online, “said says Nicole Garcia, a third-grade teacher. “They are happy to see each other.”

Garcia and her teaching assistant employ an array of digital tools each morning to “meet” with students, including Zoom, Google Classroom, Epic and Class Dojo, which notifies students and parents of assignments and tracks the completion of student work.

Garcia told the Bronx Times that overall it’s been a positive experience with the kids. She noted that often if the children miss the bus, they are stuck home. But now they are ready to learn all day.

“It’s been trial and error,” she explained. “Because we have a good relationship with the families a lot of them have been willing to go along.”

Numerous kids have been asking to go back to school, including third grader Latonia Sparrow. Sparrow likes math and science and has aspirations of being an engineer. With help from Garcia and her grandma Bernice Sparrow-Crawford, she has been able to learn virtually.

“It hasn’t been tough,” Sparrow-Crawford said. “I’ve raised seven kids. It’s okay. I just do my job.”

In addition to making academic progress, students are receiving social and emotional support at home. Jennifer D’Agostino, the clinical supervisor at the school, said her staff shares videos to facilitate student health and wellness via Google Classroom. Some of the videos include deep breathing, yoga and hand-washing, to name a few and she discusses them with her students.

She explained that every child has a clinician assigned to them and some have speech or occupational therapy. According to D’Agostino, it’s been an adjustment but it’s working.

“Now that we are in a routine everyone’s been pretty positive,” she said. “The kids are really proactive. They need the support.”

One thing they have learned is that there are only so many hours in the day. While in school the day is structured and the kids are in class but at home if they are busy they may occasionally miss a Zoom or phone call. But she noted her staff has been accessible and flexible.

Ultimately, the parents are grateful for the teachers and mental health experts, she said.

“What we found is that parents are really appreciative of what the school does,” she said. “Although it’s been a challenge, it’s also kind of eye opening. There’s not one formula that works for every kid.”