While some behaviors and sensory needs could prevent children with special needs from ever graduating with a high school diploma, four students on the autism spectrum at the Gersh Academy accomplished that very feat last week, with two moving on to Adelphi University in the fall.
The graduation ceremony, held in the school’s auditorium, proudly honored the four graduates: Matthew Hamilton, Christopher Langley, Tyler Schmalenberger and one other student who did not wish to be identified.
While founder Kevin Gersh was not able to attend the graduation, a faculty member read a short speech from Gersh, which included his personal memories of the boys who graduated. “You are each a role model for every child at this school,” he said, “and the trailblazers in this new world of awareness and opportunities.”
Dr. Stephen Shore, professor of special education at Adelphi for eight years, and also an individual with Asperger’s, gave an inspiring and empowering address regarding the many feats that individuals on the autism spectrum can achieve. Shore turned his passion for education and the study of autism in his career. “I believe that right now, we have the technology, we have the know how, we have the ability that those of us on the Autism spectrum can lead fulfilling and productive lives and become rule rather than the exception,” he said during his speech.
Matthew Hamilton and a second Gersh graduate will be moving on to Adelphi and utilizing the Bridges to Adelphi Program. Shore explained Bridges to Adelphi as “a program that provides support to students with Asperger’s syndrome and related conditions.” These students are expected to preform at the same level as all the other students, while being supported through meetings to help with time-management and social skills and opportunities.
Hamilton, a 19-year-old resident of Franklin Square, began attending Gersh at the age of 15. Coming from a school that was not as social, the Gersh Academy helped him with his anxiety and gave the emotional support that he needed, which luckily decreased during his time there. Hamilton said his biggest challenge was prepping for the Regents test and the SAT. “I had anxiety attacks that I needed control over,” he said, “it was rough for me.”
Now a graduate with an advanced Regent’s diploma, Hamilton looked back on his time at Gersh and like the other graduates, acknowledged his success would not have been possible without the support of his teachers. He will be studying computer science at Adelphi and hopes to one day work for a video game company.
Gersh Academy Principal, Celeste Gagliardi, teared up when expressing her fondest memories of the four graduates. “Watching these children go through so many years of challenges and struggles, to see these kids be so successful, I think that speaks volumes for the work we do as a staff.” It’s days like this,” Gagliardi said, “that makes it all worthwhile.”