New Connections Academy is an answer to the growing need for services for children identified with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). These students may be identified with Autism (previously Asperger’s Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Delay), Emotional Disturbance or other special education classifications. A sister school to Connection’s Day School and South Campus, New Connections Academy serves boys and girls ages 6 to 21 placed by local school districts. New Connections Academy provides school, family and community partnerships leading to successful learning.
Classes are small (averaging 8-10 students) with a teacher and an instructional aide. All staff meets or exceeds Illinois certification requirements. Students are grouped in age appropriate classes with no more than a four-year span in any one group. New Connections Academy offers a primary program (grades 1 to 3), intermediate (grades 4-6), junior high (grades 7 & 8) and several high school classes (grades 9-12). The classes are self-contained, offering a standard elementary curriculum of Reading, Spelling, Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, and Physical Education. Each student has an Individual Educational Plan developed by the placing district.
The High School Curriculum parallels the basic offerings of local high school districts. A variety of classes are available to meet individual student needs (as called for on the IEP) as well as graduation requirements. Students generally participate in a self-contained classroom.
A great deal of extra assistance is provided to help the students make progress in the general curriculum including providing breaks within the classroom, creating instruction with interwoven kinesthetic activities to provide for these children’s need for movement, as well as trained staff in sensory integration techniques in order to proactively disperse the sensory activities throughout the day.
Due to the nature of the students’ needs, a full array of related services is available including Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Art Therapy, Music Therapy, Psychiatric and Psychological Consultation and School Health Services. New Connections Academy has secured the involvement of several prominent consultants skilled in working with students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders. A unique difference in the New Connections Academy’s program is bringing the related services into the classroom.
Art therapy is a mental health profession that uses the creative process of creating art to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages. It is based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness and achieve insight.
At New Connections Academy, art therapy incorporates sensory integration with self-expression to help the students identify feelings, make choices and use creativity and imagination while creating an individual art piece in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
When most people think of speech therapy, they think of practicing speech sounds. Speech-language pathologists are trained to work with students in areas such as oral expression, language processing, comprehension, and pragmatic (social) language. At New Connections Academy, speech services are often provided in the classroom, which allows students to practice skills with their peers in the educational setting. For example, one might observe a speech class learning about and practicing conversational skills including active listening, topic maintenance, and nonverbal communication. At NCA, all staff works closely so that a student’s speech goals are practiced in a variety of settings, not just in the speech room. The staff at NCA strives to provide the best services for the individual needs of each student, and the speech-language pathologist is one member of the team.
All students at New Connections Academy participate in group and/or individual music therapy sessions. Activities include eurhythmics, improvisation, drum circle, song circle, music appreciation and history, song writing, music video production, rock band, choir, and integrative arts experiences.
Music is uniquely suited as a therapeutic tool for individuals on the autism spectrum. The holistic nature of music-making naturally lends itself to the structuring of activities that promote emotional regulation, sensory integration, and self expression. Music engages the whole brain, and provides alternate pathways to connect neural impulses to bodily responses. The brain thrives on patterns. Therapeutic use of rhythmic pulse and pattern is perceived by the brain on a pre-cognitive level as non-threatening, opening passages to channels of higher cognition. Research has shown that rhythm paired with other sensory input can increase the impact of the input. The music activity itself becomes the tool and the incentive for behavioral adaption.
Sensory Integration Therapy is an integral part of the program at New Connections Academy. Since a high percentage of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders have accompanying sensory integration dysfunction, the staff at NCA has been trained by our occupational therapists in the application of techniques into the everyday educational experience of our students. We have two sensory treatment rooms, each set up with a variety of sensory tools and products designed to give our students the opportunity to enhance their ability to register sensory information more successfully throughout their day. Each classroom is modified to meet the student’s individual sensory needs, and provides the opportunity for students to use a variety of sensory tools and activities throughout their day.
The overall goal of occupational therapy at New Connections Academy is to help the students improve their quality of life, both at home and at school. Through occupational therapy groups and individual treatment sessions, the children may learn to be more successful in:
- Daily living skills such as toilet training, dressing, brushing teeth and other grooming skills
- Fine motor skills such as handwriting or cutting with scissors
- Gross motor skills used for walking or riding a bike, sitting posture, coordination for recreational activities
- Perceptual skills, such as discriminating the differences between colors, shapes and sizes
- Visual skills for reading and writing
- Play, coping, self-help, problem solving, communication and social skills
- Self regulation for successful interactions with the environment
Upon enrollment, New Connections Academy staff assesses the student’s functioning in academic, personal and interpersonal skills and provides programming that is developmentally appropriate. All students have the opportunity to participate in enrichment classes such as Art and Music.
Each student has an individual therapist who sees the student once or twice per week (as delineated on the IEP) and more often if needed. This therapist is also the primary liaison to the family. Students are assigned to appropriate group therapies based on the recommendation of their therapist and their school district. Wide arrays of group therapies are available to meet individual student needs including social communication and emotional regulation. The school has adopted the Social Communication, Emotional Regulation and Transactional Support (SCERTS) curriculum as an organizing principle in all of its programming. The primary therapists at New Connections Academy also have available the resource of outside program consultants with expertise in a wide variety of issues related to child and adolescent development. Family therapy is provided if called for on the IEP.
The Behavior Management consists of New Connections Academy’s model of the Circle of Courage. There is a behavior management point system, which provides students with clear, concrete, immediate feedback. Various privileges and rewards are contingent on the student’s achievement on the behavior management system. The goal is to use the behavior management system as a transitory tool towards internalization of new behaviors and skills. The combination of a concrete behavior management system, a challenging curriculum and the nurturing therapeutic environment enables the students to make educational, social and emotional progress to become ready to transition to less restrictive settings.
All staff members are trained in Crisis Prevention and Intervention, a system of non-violent crisis intervention and de-escalation. While New Connections Academy does not accept students who are at imminent risk of harming themselves or others, students may occasionally become disruptive or threatening. At such times, students may be referred to our Behavior Intervention Service. This is a separate classroom with trained Behavior Intervention Specialists. Students receive help in crisis intervention, access to their therapist and additional counseling related to solving the behavioral problem in order to return to class.
Extended Day Program
The New Connections Academy Extended Day Program is an answer to the need for innovative and progressive services for seriously emotionally disturbed children. The Extended Day Program represents best practices, is cost effective, promotes the concept of least restrictive environment and is designed to eliminate the need for more restrictive placement.
Many students who struggle with severe emotional and behavioral challenges (EBD) are referred for more restrictive placement due to the lack of community based resources to provide educational services which will enable these students to make progress in the general curriculum. Because these students cannot achieve stability at more traditional options on the educational continuum, they are often referred to far more restrictive placement options which remove them from their homes, their families and their communities.
Students in need of residential placement have demonstrated the need for therapeutic services outside of the traditional school day (8:45 AM- 2:45 PM) in order to make them available for educational services during the regular school day. The Extended Day Program at New Connections Academy offers the same kinds of services as are offered at effective residential treatment centers.
Many studies have indicated that the hours of the day that “at risk” students experience the most severe difficulty are 3 to 6 PM Mondays through Fridays. The structured Extended Day Program at South Campus addresses those needs.
Students eligible for the Extended Day Program are those considered by their school district to be at risk for a more restrictive placement. They need academic support and enrichment, skilled therapeutic services as well as recreational, pre-vocational and support services.
Students referred to the New Connections Academy Extended Day Program are boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 21. Appropriate class groupings (no more than a four year span) are maintained at all times. These students have been identified by their local school districts as having a primary disability of:
- emotional and behavioral disorder
- other health impairment
- traumatic brain injury
- learning disabilities
- mental impairment
The students may also have secondary disabilities in the above areas.
Classes are small with no more than 10 students to a group. Upon enrollment, the staff assesses the student’s functioning and provides academic, clinical and behavioral programming that is developmentally appropriate. Each student has an IEP (Individual Educational Program) developed by the placing school district. Each IEP indicates the student’s needs, goals, program components, behavior intervention plan and related services required to meet the desired outcome. Students are only enrolled in the Extended Day Program when specified on the IEP by the school district.
In the Extended Day Program at New Connections Academy, students attend school from 8:45 AM to 6:30 PM. During the traditional school hours (8:45 to 2:45) they are grouped with age appropriate peers who may or may not be participating in the Extended Day Program. During the traditional school day, students engage in an academically challenging curriculum that emphasizes group instruction and hands-on activities. The problems that may arise during classroom activities are seen as opportunities for growth. The staff uses a cognitively oriented, problem solving approach to help the students overcome the problems at hand and practice more successful behaviors. While students may experience the logical consequences of their problematic behavior, the approach is always positive and non punitive. New Connections Academy does not endorse the use of time-out rooms, physical restraint or other aversive interventions. All staff are trained in Crisis Prevention and Intervention. The students have a structured behavior management system, based on the Circle of Courage to help them develop strategies to improve their performance.
At 2:45 PM, after the other students depart for home, the Extended Day students gather for a social skills group during which a snack is provided. Students then do homework. After homework, students engage in a variety of academic, therapeutic, leisure, cultural, vocational and artistic activities. Opportunities for individual counseling are available.
The behavior management system is the same as is used during the regular school day. The system provides the students with clear, concrete and immediate feedback.. Various rewards and privileges can be achieved by success on the behavior management plan. The goal is to help the students internalize new skills and behaviors.
All staff are trained in Crisis Prevention and Intervention, a system of non-violent crisis prevention, intervention and de-escalation. Students can receive additional individual counseling as necessary to prevent disruptive or aggressive behavior. All staff have the proper credentials for their job duties.
Students are transported to and from school by their public school district. They are met at the bus in the morning and escorted back to the bus in the evening.
The full school day is 8:45 AM to 6:30 PM. New Connections Academy and the public school district work together to determine which related services are provided during the regular school day and which are provided in the expended portion of the day.
Referrals can be made directly to Tanya Guild, Principal. Tuition is paid by the local school district according to the rate set by the Illinois Purchased Care Review Board.
The school day is 8:45am to 2:45pm on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Thursday hours are 8:45am to 1:45pm. Students are transported to and from school by their public school district. Students are provided a well-balanced hot lunch each day. Students are met at the bus each morning by New Connections Academy staff and again escorted back to the bus at the end of the day
Referrals can be made directly to New Connections Academy Educational Director, Ms. Cook. Tuition is paid by the local public school district according to the rate set by the Illinois Purchased Care Review Board.