Research Updates


As you are sitting outdoors enjoying this beautiful weather, I thought that you might enjoy reading these two research articles that I found very interesting.

We are in the midst of planning our students return as we will be implementing in-school, remote and hybrid models.

Next week, I will tell you about the plans for our school.

Have a great weekend and stay safe and healthy!

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Support your favorite causes during Erie Gives!

Erie Gives is tomorrow, August 11th!

Erie Gives

Last week, I shared the videos of the Approved Private School and Preschool virtual tours that highlighted our technology, updated gym, classrooms and other facilities that generous donations have helped to fund.

Now, we’re getting ready to reopen school safely with many changes. Thanks to donors like you, we’re able to provide state-of-the-art technology to our students. This technology has been invaluable in enabling remote learning, and it will be even more essential when out students return to the classroom in a few weeks.

Your donation to Erie Gives will help ensure a brighter future for all of our students as they work to achieve their dreams. We are grateful for donations at any time, but a gift during Erie Gives will make an even greater impact because of the pro-rated match from the Erie Community Foundation.

Please donate now at or call 814-454-0843.

On behalf of our children and their families, thank you. Your gift will make dreams come true!

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You’re invited to a virtual tour!

Since March 15th, our school has been closed which has prohibited our “new” families from touring the school. This tour is an integral component to our admissions process, so we have been considering how we can showcase our amazing school – the technology, the state of the art facilities, and most importantly, our staff.

Thanks to Mary Cuneo and Anthony Esposito of External Affairs, I can now invite you on a virtual tour of the Elizabeth Lee Black School, Barber National Institute!

Approved Private School Virtual Tour:

Preschool Virtual Tour:


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Remembering the ADA: 30 Years Ago

It was July 26, 1990: At the invitation of President George H. Bush, Dr. Getrude Barber had traveled to Washington, DC to witness the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This was a momentous occasion for her because she remembered well the year 1952 when no services were available for people with disabilities and they were relegated to institutions across the country. That year, when she started the first program, she served 15 students. As of today, the Barber National Institute serves 6,000 children, adults and families with special needs!


Over the years, she was a strong advocate for inclusion of persons with disabilities in the community, in schools, and in all aspects of life. She shattered numerous “glass ceilings” in her lifetime, but July 26th was the pinnacle of her efforts. Little did she know, her great nephew would be born in 1993 with autism. He would become the beneficiary of many programs and services that were developed as a result of her advocacy.  I can’t imagine what Ryan’s life would have been like without these supports.

For me, the anniversary of the ADA signing is also a day that I reminisce about the many outstanding accomplishments of my Aunt Gertrude. I’m continually awed by how much she was able to achieve in a very short period of time. She would be pleased to see Ryan’s many successes as well as the on-going growth and progress of the Barber National Institute!

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The Elizabeth Lee Black School’s Health and Safety Plan

Our hallways have never been so quiet for so long.

March 13th was the last day our students were at school.

We have been looking forward to when our children will once again disembark the buses while walking, smiling and returning to their classrooms.

So, after five months of planning we will open our doors on August 31st.   As a prerequisite to opening, we have completed our Health and Safety Plan which is a comprehensive review of the numerous measures we are implementing to assure the health and safety of our school community.

This plan includes:

  • Students will spend the entire instructional day in their classroom.
  • Students and staff will have daily health checks.
  • Students will be able to social distance as the class size is small, with six to eight students per room.
  • Staff will wear masks/coverings during the day. Students with disabilities will be encouraged to wear masks, but will not be required per IEP team recommendations.
  • High touch areas will be cleaned throughout the day and there will be a nightly deep cleaning of all areas.

The entire plan can be viewed here.

We are closely monitoring and following the PA Department of Health, PA Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control guidelines. Should they change their recommendations as to opening, we shall do as well.

However, for now, we are looking forward to the return of our students on August 31st with great anticipation and excitement.

Stay healthy, wear your mask, and maintain social distance. Let’s keep Erie safe!

health and safety

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Books to Help Children Understand Race and Anti-Racism

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog, How do we talk to children about the news?, on talking to children with special needs about the racial unrest, riots and police violence.

I received many comments and questions from parents who were wondering, as I, how to deal with these topics.

First and most importantly, I do want to emphasize that you know your child best and his/her ability to deal with these serious issues.

I would start with your child’s developmental level. If it is within the age range of 3-5, you can begin discussing racial differences in a very positive way and how we truly are fortunate that the world is made up of so many different kinds of people.

A1gUYxx6ZuLWith elementary-aged children, you can have a conversation about violence against African American people without being too explicit. As I told Ryan, there were some policemen who made bad choices because of the color of someone’s skin. Most police are community helpers, but these persons were not. This can lead into a discussion of how unfairly people with black and brown skin have been treated throughout our history. People who protest are good people who want everyone to be fair, though unfortunately, some protesters are vandals and are interested in stealing what does not belong to them.

To provide further help to families, I have been investigating books to have in your home library to help you tell the story about race and racism.

I have grouped them by age:Picture1

Ages 0-3

  • Ezra Jack Keat’s books about Peter
    • “The Snowy Day”
    • “A Letter to Amy”
    • “Hi, Cat!”
    • “Whistle for Willie”

Ages 3-5

  • “Saturday,” written and illustrated by Oge Mora
  • “hair Love,” by Matthew A. Cherry and illustrated by Vashti Harrison
  • “We’re Different, We’re the Same,” by Bobbi Kates

Ages 5-8

  • “Each Kindness,” by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E.B. Lewis
  • “The Youngest Marcher,” by Cynthia Levinson and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton

Ages 9-12

  • “Resist: 35 Profiles of Ordinary People Who Rose Up Against Tyranny and Injustice,” by Veronica Chambers and illustrated by Paul Ryding
  • “Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness,” written and illustrated by Anastasia Higginbotham

Ages 12+

  • “All American Boys,” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
  • “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” by Jason Reynolds and Imbram X. Kendi

However, I truly believe that books cannot be the end of your child’s education about race and racism. We as parents must be the models for the attitudes, behaviors, and values that we wish to see in our children.

Do you have any resources to recommend?


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What About Bullying and Special Needs Kids? Guest Blog by Rachel Cheeseman

Last week I wrote about the appalling situation that occurred when a young man was bullied by his “supposed” friends: Take a Stand Against Bullying

One of our Moms had recently posted a blog, “What About Bullying and Special Needs Kids?” She raised many excellent points, so I asked her if I might reprint her article.

I am sure that you will find her recommendations helpful. I did!


What About Bullying and Special Needs Kids?


Raising a child with autism holds incredible challenges. I know this as truth because I’m an “autism parent”. My son, Blaize attends a local Approved Private School program that exclusively serves special needs children. Toward the end of last school year, my son’s teacher was talking with me about the arrival of a new student in the classroom and about how her and Blaize were getting along very nicely.   I said “Oh, that’s great!  Is she new to the area?” The teacher’s response was, “No. Her parents transferred her to our school due to bullying in their home district”. Part of me could not understand why anyone would bully a special needs child. And the other part of me served as confirmation to the sad reality of one of my worst fears.

A 2011 survey by the International Autism Network found over 60% of students with disabilities reported being bullied regularly, compared to 25% of all their neurotypical/non-disabled peers. A large portion of this group sampling were in fact kids with autism. The problem with autism is it’s difficult to fully understand social cues and expression of feelings; especially as it relates to others. That’s why it’s so easy for autistic kids to become victimized in mainstream academic programs. On the flip side, kids with autism also struggle with empathy, so they run a higher risk of becoming the actual bully in mainstreamed social circles. All these statistical examples are troubling. Largely because I could see my own son (and other kids just like him) on either side of the equation.

The good side to all this is the amount of increased public awareness education for autism and other disabilities. Most families have someone close to them or a friend with the diagnosis of autism. Although the public-school system has enacted many programs that focus on integration and inclusiveness, there is still much work to be done in the realm of full-scale acceptance as it relates to the general student body. My best advice to all parents is “get involved”. Have a transparent line of regular communication about your child with the teaching staff. Follow up (daily if needed) to monitor your child’s behavior both inside the classroom as well as on the playground. Ask specific questions about mannerisms. Does your child get along with others? Are they aggressive? Do they seem isolated? Do they seek conversation?

If problems exist in any of these areas, parents need to intervene at once. Addressing these issues through your child’s Behavioral Specialist Consultant (BSC) or Mobile Therapist (MT) can be extremely valuable. Don’t be hesitant to create social goals in your child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) too. This will help to bring all teaching staff on board to collectively help your child progress toward effective social cue development. My son’s therapist uses cards with various photos of emotional expression; then creates a match game to help make the learning more fun.

Siblings and friends need to get involved too. Form a trusted bond with the affected individual. Assist them in understanding situations where they can misrepresent social cues that may cause them to become anxious or aggressive. By the same token, report behavior that appears to degrade or take advantage of someone’s mental or physical condition. Participate in a community event, such as a walk, with relatives and friends to educate yourself. Working together can increase public acceptance as well as help the affected person thrive with confidence and form lasting friendships!

Rachel Cheeseman and BlaizeRachel Cheeseman is a 2nd degree black belt and has studied the martial arts for the past 28 years.  She founded Street Smart Self Defense Academy in Erie, PA 17 years ago to empower women, due to the rape of her sister in her off-campus college apartment. She is a certified instructor for the national full-contact self-defense program called “Model Mugging” and a certified instructor for the MUNIO Self Defense Workshops. Rachel is also a member of and former seminar instructor for the American Women’s Self Defense Association, and she has been inducted into the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame, Action Martial Arts Magazine Hall of Honors and the World Karate Union Hall of Fame.


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Take a Stand Against Bullying

This morning, I watched a video on television of a young man in Erie being bullied. His “supposed” friends were shooting fireworks at him. I was appalled, as I hope everyone was who watched this video.

talking to your child about bullying

The unfortunate reality is that one out of every four students report being bullied during the school year and children with disabilities are 2-3 times more likely to be bullied that their peers without disabilities. Yes, these are startling statistics, but bullying continues to be an issue in our schools, community and online.  So, what can we do?

  • First, and most important, let’s teach kindness and acceptance in our home, school, and our community.
  • Talk to our children, so that they understand bullying. Talk about what bullying is, how to stand up to it safely and how to get help.
  • Keep lines of communication open. Check in with your children – know who their friends are and ask about school.
  • Encourage children to do what they love. Activities, hobbies and interests can boost confidence and help children make friends.
  • Model how to treat others with kindness and respect.

There are also numerous resources online that you can share with your children to help them understand what to do if they see bullying occur. Some include:

Although October is National Bullying Prevention Month, I believe, today, we as a community and a nation need to take a stand against bullying and make people aware of this unfortunate reality. Increased public awareness and education is critical to finding a solution.



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Coffee Chat hosted by Erie Philharmonic’s Music Director, Daniel Meyer

I had the great opportunity to participate in a Coffee Chat with Daniel Meyer, Erie Philharmonic Music Director, Tom Brooks, Chorus Director, and Martha Summa-Chadwick, Music Therapist. I first met Martha five years ago when she was in Erie for a performance of the Erie Chamber and spent a day with our students and staff. She is an amazing woman.

The topic of our discussion today is music and health. I think that we have all turned to music during the quarantine as we seek out what is personally comforting. However, we also know that as we look at the history of music, there are many composers who used music as an outlet for their own self-expression and needs. Schumann was bipolar and Beethoven was afflicted with deafness. But, it was not until after World War II that the importance of music as therapy and its impact on the brain came to the forefront. Today, there is a great deal of research looking at how music and rhythm can actually help redirect neural networks.

Did you ever consider the benefits of singing? Tom Brooks discusses how singing works the lungs and diaphragm and thereby strengthens the immune system, improves aerobic capability, and energizes the body. We can’t sing in a chorus right now, but we can definitely sing at home.

I hope that my brief summary has “whet your appetite” and that you will tune into our discussion tonight a 7 PM on the Erie Philharmonic Facebook page at or on Youtube at


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Working Together: Artists Express Creativity

portalbanner-3072x450-noneIf two heads are better than one, think about the painting that four artists could create if they worked together.

That is what four adults proved as they worked on “Pathfinders,” a collaborative painting that will be among the works in the Jay & Mona Kang Art Show & Sale.

Frank Fecko, fine arts supervisor at the Barber National Institute, develops many different ways to enable adults with varying abilities and challenges to express themselves through art. Collaborative pieces encourage cooperation and communication, and, it turns out, are a perfect way to play to the strengths of each artist.

When Frank wanted to encourage Donna Straight to create artwork for the show, he found that her limited mobility would not be a barrier when he brought her together with three other artists.

“Because Donna can’t use her hands, she draws with a laser affixed to her headband,” Frank said. “She designs the whole piece.”  While Donna drew the pattern, Frank followed the laser closely with a pen to capture her idea on paper.

The completed design was projected onto a large canvas and outlined with chalk.  With Donna’s vision as the basis for the piece, Alfred Brown then used his precision skills to layer scotch tape over each of the lines. He carefully placed short pieces that have a staggered look, which surprised

“You really don’t know how these projects are going to go,” he said. “They just evolve on their own. I facilitate the process and they do the creating. That is what makes them exciting.”

When it came time to paint, Inna Dovbush and Sarah Shaffer took over.  Inna has been regularly doing art in the Community Participation Supports Program, but Frank was eager to work with Sarah, who has only been in the program for half a year.

“Sarah’s always watching me work with the individuals here, but would never really initiate her desire to come over and paint,” Frank said. “She’s got a certain set of skills that would be perfect for this kind of painting, even though she’s never worked on it before. So we gave it a try.”

Sarah and Inna both took turns dripping paint onto the canvas while the other would spread it with a roller. Despite it being her first project, Sarah took to the process naturally. She made sure Inna felt included in both the dripping and rolling, and helped direct her to work in certain areas.

Frank is pleased with the teamwork the duo exhibited and the direction they took the piece. Once satisfied with the painting, Inna and Sarah peeled the tape off the canvas in preparation for the final phase of the project.

Alfred returned with a paintbrush in hand to paint over the exposed chalk lines with a variety of colors. You can view the process at

While Frank developed the process to create this piece, he said he still learned a lot from watching the adults in relation to his own work as an artist.  He also believes this type of project perfectly exemplifies one of the goals the program sets out to do:  foster social engagement.

“Interaction among each other is really a major component to the program,” Frank said. “Art is just a vehicle to do that.”

This is the final week of the Jay & Mona Kang Virtual Art Show. You can still place your bid on “Pathfinders,” or purchase your favorite piece of art. There is a lot of great art available! Visit us at

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