The Importance of High-Quality Preschool Education

The Barber National Institute has been offering the Pre-K Counts program for fourteen years in Erie and Corry.

The program is designed for children three to five years of age 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.

We have seen many outstanding results as the children have progressed through the program and have numerous anecdotal comments from families about their child’s later success in school.

So, I was very interested in reading about the New Jersey Abbott Preschool Program longitudinal effects study through tenth grade.  Twenty years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court Abbott v. Burke mandated that the state establish high-quality preschool education in the thirty-one highest poverty school districts.  Many of the features of their program are similar to Pennsylvania’s Pre-K Counts program.

  • Access to low-income families.
  • High expectations for learning
  • Teachers with four-year degrees and paraeducators with a minimum of associate degrees
  • Full day throughout the school year
  • No parent fees

Their program is offered in a mixed delivery system including Head Start, public and private schools.  The Pennsylvania program is overseen by the Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL) whereas the school districts oversee the New Jersey program.

The study looked at initial effects at entrance to kindergarten based on individualized assessments and effects on statewide assessments from grades three through ten.  The achievement effects were smaller in grades three through ten than at kindergarten entry but did not “fade out” and remained substantial through grade ten in language arts, literacy and math.

Attending the program for two years beginning at age three had roughly twice the effects of achievement as one year at age four.

Grade retention was fifteen points lower through grade ten and there was a seven percent point reduction in special education.

As we hear more and more discussion of universal preschool, I would think that Pennsylvania and New Jersey could serve as model programs for our nation.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Not-So-Lazy Days of Summer at BNI!

Some people think of the lazy days of summer, but at the Barber National Institute, we’re actually busier than ever! Over the years, we have initiated a number of programs to ensure that children have both educational and recreational opportunities throughout the summer.

Happy Hearts Childcare

Working moms and dads don’t have the summer off to play with their children. Happy Hearts offers childcare early morning through late afternoon for ages 3-5. Weekly fieldtrips, arts and crafts, STEM, and lots of fun activities ensure children have a great time!

Early Intervention

Ideally, many children with developmental delays benefit from year-round education. At BNI, we offer a summer component with short breaks so that the children do have a “summer vacation” but not the traditional 3 months of summer. The children continue to receive educational services specified on their Individual Education Plans (IEP) including speech therapy and physical therapy.

Extended School Year (ESY)

For children 5-21 with disabilities, a 5-week summer program is provided to assure that children do not lose the skills that they have acquired during the school year. Services on a child’s IEP are continued throughout ESY.


BNI offers four distinct camps:

  1. Learn to Ride Bike Camp is a 4-week program to help children develop skills to ride their bikes independently.  The program is open to children 6 years of age and above who have not been successful riding without training wheels.
  2. Camp Connections is a social skills development program for children and adolescents with a diagnosis of autism developing interpersonal skills, managing emotions, and making good decisions.
  3. Camp Shamrock focuses on development of recreational skills for children with disabilities.
  4. Expanding Social Opportunities (ESO) Camp is similar to Shamrock but is offered to young adults 18 and over with intellectual disabilities.

You can learn more about our camps at

Get ready, get set, let’s have fun!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Graduation 2021

Today is graduation.  Traditionally, we have a large graduation class and of course, an audience.  This year, we have twenty-seven children graduating from Happy Hearts and Early Intervention, twelve from Pre-K Counts, and thirteen from High School.

Last year, we had a drive by event as our school was closed. Usually, we have 400+ people in the attendance, however since we would be required to limit size, we decided to break into three groups and hold the event outdoors.  So today we had three ceremonies, one at noon, 2:00 PM and 6:00 PM.   The weather looked questionable, but we kept our fingers crossed and kept praying to Dr. Barber. We successfully completed the noon session with raindrops only at the end. The 2:00 PM session will be happening momentarily …and it is not raining!  We will have to see what transpires for the 6:00 PM???

Graduation is both happy and sad for us.  We are happy that our students are moving on, but we are sad to say goodbye to these children who we have come to know throughout the years, and the parents with whom we have had the good fortune to work with as part of our team.

When Dr. Barber established the Barber National Institute 70 years ago, it was to ensure that all children and adults had every opportunity to go to school, get jobs, and become active participants in the community. Each of our graduates have met their goals through hard work, diligence and dedication. We are proud of what our students have accomplished and are inspired by each of them.

Congratulations to the Class of 2021!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The 2020-2021 School Year in Review

As the 2020-2021 school year comes to a close, I began thinking…

When the year started, some children were remote, while others were hybrid, attending two or three days a week.  The students and staff remained in their “pods,” or classrooms, throughout the day. Since our class size is small with only eight students per room, with hybrid and remote programming there were only two or three children with the staff each day. Furthermore, to limit interactions outside of the classroom, the therapists and ancillary teachers (art, physical education) went to the rooms, and breakfast and lunch were also delivered and served in the classroom.  Temperatures were taken upon entrance to school each day and children with any of the potential COVID-19 symptoms were isolated, sent home, and then quarantined for two weeks.

So where are we now, on June 2, 2021? 

Most of the children are attending full time in class unless the parents prefer remote instruction.  We are still in our classroom “pods,” but students do venture out to go to the gym and playground. 

Temperatures are still taken upon arrival and we monitor the children for any symptoms. 

I am thrilled to report that more than 80% of our staff are vaccinated.  We have had very, very few cases of COVID-19 among our staff and less than .01% among our students. The extensive mitigation procedures and modifications worked, and our staff and students were able to stay safe.   I am thoroughly proud of our staff and families who embraced technology and virtual learning.  Evidently it worked, as very few of our students experienced a loss of skills.

We anticipate (and hope) that there will be revisions in the health and safety requirements for schools for school year 2021-2022 and we look forward to these changes. We plan to see our students fully engaged in school and therapies, and again be able to walk our halls.  I do miss the children’s laughter!

I am looking forward to the 2021-2022 school year, and I know our parents and staff are, as well.

I appreciate the support of our staff, students, and our community as we met the challenges of COVID-19!  It was quite a year!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mental Health Awareness Month Guest Blog, by Maria Brown

I asked Maria Brown, M.S., BCBA, who is a Behavior Analyst at BNI to write this guest blog for Mental Health Awareness Month. I thought she would have invaluable input!


The Elizabeth Lee Black School at the Barber National Institute (BNI) has a unique program that treats children with dual diagnosis.  This program is the Children’s Mental Health Partial Hospitalization program (CMHPHP).  The individuals enrolled in this program have a developmental disability as well as a Mental Health diagnosis.  The mental health challenges this program treats include anxiety, conduct disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity, obsessive compulsive disorder, and other mood disorders.  It can be particularly difficult to find appropriate treatments and interventions that adapt to the abilities and individual needs of these children. 

This past year has been a challenge to all of us, considering COVID-19 restrictions, remote instruction, and all the precautions necessary for everyone to stay safe in this pandemic.  Individuals with a mental health disorder can find these changes and restrictions even more difficult.  Many children who have never had a mental health disorder are finding themselves experiencing emotional challenges during this pandemic.  With all these changes to routine and environment, it does not need to be said that the children in the BNI CMHPHP have had unexpected changes in their mood that effect their overall functioning and mental health. 

Despite these challenges, these children have come back to programing with more skills, better coping abilities, and supports that they would not have had access to if the COVID-19 pandemic had not occurred.   During remote instruction, our children have learned how to attend to instructors, screens, and their parents to receive Mental Health treatment and educational instruction.   Children who normally cannot sit for more than a few minutes have developed patience through technological issues and have increased their ability to complete work more independently.  Our students have worked through and overcome sensory issues with wearing masks and more frequent cleaning and sanitizing procedures.  We have even adapted to a different way to greet others, using elbow bumps in place of hive fives or hugs.  This physical contact can be especially important for our children with mental health needs to keep their spirits high and support their emotional needs. 

The most impressive positive effect of this pandemic is the increase in the children’s flexibility and ability to adapt to change.  They have dealt with unexplainable stay home orders, return to in person instruction, transitions to hybrid instruction, and return to full programing.  Most of our children have done this with very little disruption to their mental health symptoms or increases in disruptive of unsafe behaviors.  Much of this success is attributed to the parents of the children in the program.  These parents have learned skills teachers and therapists use in the classroom that they would not normally experience.  Teachers, therapists, and parents have worked together to help the children develop replacement skills and work through emotional outbursts.  This pandemic has brought many challenges to everyone, but for the children in the BNI’s CMHPHP we can also claim some success for the children and their parents in developing skills that will be lifelong tools to battle mental health issues and increase their success in the community.  

Maria Brown is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst who has worked at the Barber National Institute for the past 19 years.  Her focus is helping students’ social emotional health and developing lifelong skills.  Maria has presented on several topics in the Special Education field and is currently dedicated to helping train future Registered Behavior Technicians and Board-Certified Behavior Analysts.   

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Collaboration between General McLane School District and the Barber National Institute

Two years ago, the Barber National Institute (BNI) began a collaboration with the General McLane School District opening a Life Skills classroom within Parker Middle School for children with Autism and/or behavior challenges. It was our first venture into offering a classroom within another district’s building, and it was a great success – so much that Michael Cannata, Special Education Coordinator of the General McLane School District, again approached us to develop a Therapeutic Support classroom at McKean Elementary. The classroom opened at the beginning of this school year.

McKean Elementary

Why a therapeutic classroom? General McLane staff were serving elementary-level children with social-emotional learning (SEL) issues that resulted in externalizing behaviors, such as aggression and elopement. Often, students were referred to short-term out of district placement. However, General McLane saw this as a “band aid” approach and hoped to create an environment where the children would be taught the skills they needed for success within the regular education curriculum.

A Barber National Institute teacher, paraeducator and Behavior support staff are the classroom team, who work with General McLane personnel. The focus of the classroom, SEL, develops mindsets for success, social skills, and learning strategies that both promote positive mental health and student behavior as well as increase academic achievement. Due to the impact of COVID-19, SEL is extremely important now more than ever.

As Mr. Cannata explained, BNI staff are specialists. “When you are having a heart problem, you go to the cardiologist. These are behavior specialists who are experts in the field, so we find it very valuable to have a working relationship.”

Since the opening of the therapeutic classroom, there have been significantly less problem behaviors, zero rates of outside placement, no crisis phone calls to parents, and no hospitalizations. Students are learning positive replacement behaviors, such as coping skills, emotion regulation, and functional communication. Overall, disruption of the school community has decreased, and all students have a more consistent environment in the elementary school.

A win/win for BNI and General McLane School District!  

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Celebrating Nurse Appreciation Week

Nurses have always played an important role in my life. My grandfather was the first male nurse at St. Vincent Hospital, and went on to become a physician. My Aunt Marion (Dr. Barber’s sister) was the Director of Nursing by day at St. Vincent, and at night was the caregiver of neighbors in need on Erie’s East side (then known as “Kingtown.”)

Aunt Marion was certainly a mentor for my late sister JoAnne, who knew that she wanted to be a nurse even as a preteen. To my Dad, a nursing degree meant that JoAnne could not go to St. Mary’s College, but she could go to Georgetown. JoAnne loved being the Litchfield school nurse, and often shared stories of helping children and families.

And so, as we celebrate Nurses Appreciation Week, I’d like to take a moment to recognize the Elizabeth Lee Black School nurses, Ellen Danowski and Kathy Babins. I know that we are fortunate to have such dedicated, caring nurses in our school. Ellie and Kathy can always be counted on to respond to student’s medical needs calmly, with expert nursing care and a smile.

Kathy Babins and Ellen Danowski

ELBS is unique in that we educate students from 22 school districts, many of whom have multiple, complex disabilities that require specialized treatments. Some students have a seizure disorder, so we know that when we hear a “Code Red” – our nurses are responding to a call for emergency treatment. Of course, our nurses complete semi-annual height, weight, and eye assessments along with dental exams, in addition to the numerous demands throughout their day.

The health and safety of our children are paramount. Thus, our nurses constantly communicate with our team, our families and other medical providers to ensure continuity of care. When I asked Ellie and Kathy about their role at the ELBS, they commented:

“Working for the Elizabeth Lee Black School is one of the most rewarding career paths we have found in our nursing careers.  Being able to support the students both physically and emotionally is just one small part of our job.  Experiencing the love the children have to give make all the paperwork and hard days worth it.  We try our best every day to make a positive difference in their lives.”

On behalf of our students and faculty, thank you Ellie and Kathy for everything you do to help make dreams come true for our children and their families.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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!”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment