Mother’s Day

As I was planning my blog for Mother’s Day, I thought, “Why don’t I ask for Ryan’s input?” Last night, while he was having dessert, I asked the question, “Tell me about your mom.” The following are his (unedited) responses:

At Adrian and Kristi Pinto’s wedding, August 2019

She is the best Mom ever.

I love her as a Mom.

She is pretty.

She takes care of me.

She takes me out to eat.

She does my taxes every year.

She keeps me calm.

She will buy me swimming rings for Memorial Day.

She lets me read to the kids in Happy Hearts and talk to everybody.

She buys me four pieces of bacon for Wednesdays and sugar popsicles.

She takes me on trips.

She takes me to Church.

She buys me ski, golf, Waterworld passes.

She helps me practice reading for the kids.

She has been teaching me how to “chef.”

I like having her as a friend.

She takes me for flu and virus shots so I don’t get sick.

She let me come to her bedroom door if I am scared during the night.

She takes me to work out every Saturday and Sunday.

I am happy to have her as my Mom.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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National Teacher Appreciation Day

The first week of May is full of moments created to celebrate and appreciate many people in our lives – teachers, nurses, therapists, paraeducators, behavior specialists and many, many support personnel. This year, National Teacher Appreciation Day is Tuesday, May 4. However, at the Elizabeth Lee Black School we are recognizing all of our staff who work so diligently in our school during “Staff Appreciation Week.”

We agree with former First Lady Michelle Obama, who aptly stated: “At a time when more and more jobs require a good education, teacher’s week couldn’t be more important.” A good teacher can change a student’s life, creating worlds of opportunity, shaping the future and inspiring dreams. I think back to a teacher who influenced me and remember Sister Eulalia from Villa Maria grade school. Sister Eulalia was an English scholar, who instilled in us the knowledge and importance of good grammar. We spent hours diagramming prayers as a means of understanding subject/verb agreement, the error in dangling participles, and sentence fragments. When we entered Sister’s classroom, our knees were shaking and our hands were trembling, we were so nervous that we would make a mistake! However, we survived and today I credit my writing skills to Sister Eulalia.

Of course, I also look back to the teachers who had such a positive impact on Ryan’s learning. The first that comes to mind is Mrs. T, a retired first grade teacher who tutored Ryan from first grade to fifth grade. Mrs. T’s guiding philosophy was that if a student isn’t learning, then we must change how we teach him – a sentiment that echoes throughout the Elizabeth Lee Black School.  

And of course, I cannot forget my aunt, Dr. Gertrude Barber, our founder. She considered herself first and foremost a teacher. She was President of a multi-million-dollar agency, but her greatest happiness was found in being with her children, her students.

I encourage you to think back over your education. Who were the shining lights? Who inspired your dreams? It’s never too late to reach out to those people who made an impact on your life to tell them “Thank You!”

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Autism Research Articles

As we wind down Autism Awareness Month, I thought that I would review some of the latest research in autism. There is some excellent information that I wanted to share! Read on!


CSF and autism revisited

Examining the levels of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in children may become the first biomarker that could predict autism. The first study investigating levels of CSF only included 55 infants, of which only 10 developed autism. The latest study included 343 infants, of which 221 were considered high risk of developing autism because they had an older sibling with autism. The children who developed the most severe autism had 24 percent more CSF. The research team found that the increase in CSF could predict which babies would go on to develop autism with 70 percent accuracy.

Read the full article here.

Virtual Training May Help Young People With Autism Land Jobs

New research suggests that practicing job interview skills by using a virtual simulator could significantly increase employment for young adults with autism. The study focused on individuals on the spectrum ages 16 to 26. Those who participated in a virtual employment training program had better interviewing skills, had less anxiety, and were much more likely to get hired within six months than those who only received typical pre-employment transition services.

Read the full article here.

Proteins linked to top autism gene might aid early diagnosis

According to a new study, researchers have found that blood levels of proteins associated with autism-linked gene, PTEN, could help clinicians diagnose autism. The study examined the intelligence quotient (IQ) and the blood levels of various proteins in 25 participants with autism and 16 participants without autism. Those found with high levels of PTEN tended to have lower measures cognitive skills.

Read the full article here.

‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood’ Adds Character With Autism

Meet Max, a new character with autism, who is joining the PBS KIDS show “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” this April. Max sometimes takes longer to feel comfortable with new people and situations, but he likes numbers, buses, bugs, and his older sister.

To develop Max’s character, the show’s creators collaborated with Wes Dotson, an associate professor of special education at the University of Missouri. Max is voiced by Israel Thomas-Bruce, a teenager from Toronto who is on the autism spectrum.

Read the full article here.

New study uses machine learning to find biomarkers for an autism subtype linked to maternal immune reaction

Researchers have been able to correctly predict a subgroup of autism, known as maternal autoantibody-related autism spectrum disorder (MAR-ASD), which may affect up to 18 percent of individuals with autism. The study focused on a subset of children with MAR-ASD and used a new machine learning technique that searches for patterns in blood samples.

Read the full article here.

Amid Pandemic, ‘Sesame Street’ Aims To Help Children With Autism Adapt

The “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children” initiative has new materials that are designed to help families adjust to changes in routine. These materials include online videos, a storybook, an interactive game, articles for parents, and a new episode of “Sesame Street” that aired earlier in the month featuring Julia, a 4-year-old muppet with autism.

Read the full article here.

Virtual autism assessments are likely here to stay

Researchers and clinicians say that virtual autism assessments have been more successful than they anticipated, and they plan to continue a virtual option after the pandemic ends. Virtual assessments allow observations to be made in the child’s home environment and offer options to families in a wider geographical area.

Read the full article here.

Gaze-tracking app predicts diagnosis in toddlers

Clinicians tested a new mobile phone app that aims to help determine whether children as young as 17 months should be referred to a specialist for an autism evaluation.  By tracking eye-gaze patterns, the app can distinguish between children who later receive an autism diagnosis and those who do not with 90% accuracy.

In this study, the app plays videos of conversing adults and adults playing with toys. The children whose gaze did not follow the flow of conversation and was tracked looking at the toys were later diagnosed with autism.

Read the full article here.

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The 2020 State of Preschool Report

Interestingly, last week, we celebrated “Week of the Young Child” and soon thereafter, the 2020 State of Preschool report was published. Typically, the State of Preschool only has information on the prior year, but this year’s edition also has a special section to address the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on state-funded preschool programs. There were some startling findings.

  • Growth in state-funded preschool had slowed, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. This decline was only the second time since 2002.
  • The pandemic imposed a huge setback on Pre-K with decreases in enrollment and spending. Reductions in enrollment occurred for two reasons: Parents didn’t want to enroll their child and state preschool budgets were cut.
  • There is great variability across states as to who provides high-quality, full day preschool. Pennsylvania ranked 28th for preschool accessibility. Only 22% of PA’s 4-year-olds and 11% of 3-year-olds were enrolled.
  • The minimum per child cost for all day, high-quality preschool in PA is $11,976. PA is currently spending $6,849. This amount ranks PA as 13th in the nation for what is spent for Pre-K.

This data supports what we saw in our Happy Hearts preschool and Pre-K Counts programs. Less children were served both in terms of typical children and children with special needs.

We are currently promoting our Happy Hearts preschool for Fall. If you are interested in more information about Happy Hearts, please email Nina Wolfarth at

Happy Hearts is…

  • A compassionate, stimulating environment with caring students
  • Children are invested in their materials and their learning
  • Staff are committed to quality care
  • Kind, Safe & Independent (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports)
  • Leave your cares to us!
  • Where quality Child Care matters
  • We stand for Excellence!
  • Community and Employees find trust in us!
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Week of the Young Child

Established in 1971, The Week of the Young Child™ (WOYC), April 10-16, is an annual celebration sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. It was created to focus public attention on the importance of early childhood education. The Early Childhood years from birth to age eight lay the foundation for a child’s later success in their academic or social life.

At the Barber National Institute, we have long been invested in early childhood education. In fact, we first began our preschool programs for children with special needs in 1952.

What do we have available in 2021?

Our Pre-K Counts program based in Erie and Corry is part of a statewide initiative to provide a high-quality full-time preschool experience free of charge for children of qualifying families. Pre-K Counts is designed to assist children who may be considered “at risk” because of the family’s economic, language, cultural or other circumstances which may prevent the child from developing the skills necessary to enter kindergarten ready to learn.

Happy Hearts Early Childhood Program, a fully inclusive preschool, provides a state-of-the-art educational experience where all preschool children have the opportunity to learn and grow. We began this program in the early 1980s, to allow neighborhood children and children of our staff to attend preschool. Today, we serve typical children as well as children with developmental delays. Happy Hearts is a four-out-of-four Keystone Stars Certified program and aligns with a progressive, innovative curriculum that encourages the development of creativity, self-direction, positive peer interactions and communication. Our history of providing individualized education allows us to guide each child toward his or her potential.

Specialized Early Intervention program serves preschool-age children who require a more structured classroom environment and a higher staff to student ratio.

We also are an Approved Private School and serve children with autism, intellectual and physical disabilities, and behavioral challenges who need intensive educational programming and therapies.

Our involvement with young children doesn’t end there. By partnering with organizations such as the PNC Grow Up Great program, we help to promote and encourage all children to reach their fullest potential, while sharing the resources to help make it possible.

Check out our Facebook page to see some of the WOYC fun activities. We even went on a Safari!

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Introducing the Student of the Week!

In my previous blog, The Power of Kind Words, I wrote about Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and how the Elizabeth Lee Black School teachers design lessons based on the core principles of PBIS. These principles emphasize the importance of being kind, safe, and independent. Each week, we focus on a specific skill.

Since PBIS began in 2017, the PBIS Core Team has offered innovative and exciting ways to promote a positive culture within our school. During this week’s inservice, they introduced a new initiative: The Student of the Week!

Each classroom will nominate a student who displays skills from the Student Matrix. Four students will be chosen, one for each grade level: Preschool, Elementary, Middle, and High School.

Beginning this Friday, the nominated students will be entered into a raffle. Each classroom can watch, as the winners will be announced virtually. The winners will have a Student of the Week sign posted on their classroom door and their names will be displayed at our main entrances. The students will also receive a certificate to take home.

I am looking forward to our first drawing. This is a wonderful way to reinforce the positive supports and culture that is needed for all students to achieve social, emotional and academic success!

Congratulations to the PBIS Team!

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How Autism Awareness has Improved Over Time

It’s hard to believe, but April has been recognized as Autism Awareness month since 2007.   I started writing about it in 2012.  That is the year that I began my blog…9 years ago!

As I look back over the years, I think about the enormous changes.

  • Thousands more children have been diagnosed as the prevalence is now 1:54.   Very different from the 1:10,000 in the 1980’s.
  • Because so much publicity has been directed to the signs of autism, parents are often the first to recognize the possible characteristics of autism and consult their physician.  This is a very important outcome, as early diagnosis is critical.
  • Educational opportunities increased tenfold as many institutions of higher learning began offering special education certification in the field of autism. More qualified teachers allowed schools to expand programs for children with autism.  
  • We also began to understand fully that autism is a spectrum disorder and that we have children who are on all levels: mild, moderate, and severe.  For each, a different level of educational programming is mandated for their free appropriate education.
  • The expansion of awareness leading to greater identification of children with autism in the 1990’s resulted in a tsunami of children graduating from high school circa 2015-2018 and in need of further vocational/employment /educational services. Colleges began programs for young adults with autism.  Employers became aware of the many talents that persons with autism have to offer. Supported Employment programs and OVR provided job coaches to assist adults in securing and maintaining jobs.
  • Last, but not least, additional funding became available on the state and federal level to support children and adults with autism.  Certainly, never enough to meet the needs of the autism community, but it was a beginning.

How can you assist during April?  Spread the word about Acceptance of children and adults with autism in the schools, jobs, and in society as a whole.   At the Barber National Institute, we strive to be part of the fabric of our society and have found Erie to be a welcoming community.  That has been because of Acceptance.  We have made great strides, but more can be done…. through Acceptance.

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Rock your socks for World Down Syndrome Day!

Sunday was World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD), a day to promote awareness, understanding, and support for persons with Down syndrome.  Did you know that even the date itself, 3/21, has meaning? It was selected because of the triplication of the 21st chromosome which causes Down syndrome.

First observed in 2006, WDSD wasn’t officially celebrated until 2012. It was thanks to an extensive campaign launched by Down Syndrome International and Brazil that the date became part of the United Nations calendar. On December 19, 2011, the United Nations General Assembly declared March 21 as WDSD.

Yesterday, the staff and students of the Elizabeth Lee Black School showed their support for WDSD.  Everyone was wearing bright, colorful, or mismatched socks.  The socks are worn to attract attention as a conversation starter so that people ask questions. The wackier the socks, the better! This is all part of #LotsOfSocks, a campaign held because chromosomes are shaped “like socks.”

To learn more about Down syndrome, there are many great videos available at the Canadian Down Syndrome Society website –

I’d encourage you to take a few moments…they are inspiring!

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Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! If you look in any of our classrooms, you will see every shade of green that you can imagine. Wendy Sadlier, our head “chef,” is offering Reuben sandwiches in the cafeteria and Irish music is playing in many classrooms. Yes, it is a fun day for both students and staff! However, it’s a day rooted in a tradition that is the basis for our mission. Why is that? Well, it all started with the shamrock…

We all know that the shamrock is the familiar emblem of Irish culture. Often, I have been asked, “Do you have a shamrock for your emblem because the Barber Family is Irish?” While we do come from an Irish heritage, the shamrock truly has a meaning that extends beyond just our lineage. I recall sitting with Dr. Barber as she explained her concept of the shamrock to artist Frank Fecko. Each of the three leaves has significance: Faith, inspired Hope, and enduring Love. And the stem? It is the community of supporters, our children and adults, families, staff, and friends. With this in mind, Frank designed our shamrock, an emblem we have used every day since!

Today, the shamrock endures as our promise to future generations that the Barber National Institute will continue our commitment to serving children and adults with disabilities and their families. It’s comforting to think that we will continue to see this “lucky” green symbol for decades to come! As Dr. Gertrude Barber stated: “All things are possible if you set a goal, persevere, and put wings on our dreams.”

Ryan’s first St. Patrick’s Day!

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2020: Looking back at how the Elizabeth Lee Black School moved forward through a pandemic

Can you believe it?  It was just about one year ago that the Governor closed all schools in Pennsylvania.  It was supposed to be for two weeks.  Little did we know then that it would last to September! Yes, COVID turned education upside down! So, I thought that I would “look back” and share with you what I have seen as the positive outcomes and challenges that we have experienced.

Our students:

As educators, we know that we must integrate social/emotional/cognitive learning, but the question was, how do we do this in a virtual learning environment?  This issue certainly was heightened for students with disabilities.

We knew that we needed to focus on the individual student’s strengths and challenges through virtual and innovative learning.

Our families:

What did this mean for our families?  Suddenly, they were now responsible for their child’s education. How would our families be able to support their children should behavioral challenges occur?

We acknowledged that we needed to support our families in every way possible. We wanted to engage our families in the learning process.  Staff needed to reach out regularly to our students and families, share information, identify resources to ensure that the students’ and families’ needs were met. A holistic approach was needed that would support scaffolded learning.


Not a replacement for human interaction, but a tool to help students and staff communicate, monitor progress, and present information in different ways.

Fortunately, for our students who lacked technology, their home school districts were able to provide them with chrome books, iPads, etc. However, our staff needed to learn how to utilize technology for virtual learning.  During the first months, we provided enrichment activities for our students which was offered in an asynchronous learning environment. This meant that the students used the enrichment materials at any time and without a video component.  But when we returned virtually in the summer, we knew we had to offer synchronous learning as well. The platforms, Box and Go To Meeting, became the vehicles for us to do this.  Then Microsoft TEAMS became available in the Fall…another learning curve!

Physical plant:

We required so much to be able to implement mitigation procedures, but we also knew that this was critical for us to keep our students and staff safe. We developed a Health and Safety Plan and identified  tasks that were essential to complete: upgrading ventilation in all areas, establishing outdoor classrooms, purchasing plexiglass dividers, UV sanitizers for iPads, sanitizing spray, securing PPE, including gloves, masks and gowns…. The lists became quite extensive!

So, 365 days later, I can state that on a positive note, most of our students have not demonstrated the loss of skills that one might have expected. Our families and staff have worked diligently so that has not occurred, and many have been thoroughly engaged in their child’s education.  We have learned so much about technology and how best to engage our students in virtual learning.  I am pleased that many of our students are now back to school full time and hope that these numbers will continue to increase.  We look forward to School Year 21-22 with our students fully engaged in their classrooms. It portends to be an exciting year!

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