Going away to summer camp is a time-honored rite of passage for the O'Connell children of Sterling, Virginia. In 2011, Anahoe O'Connell, then age nine, made his first summer foray, but his "camp" experience was far different than his siblings'. Anahoe enrolled in HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy's Extended School Year (ESY) program in Philadelphia, and has been going back every summer since. Like able-bodied children his age, Anahoe, now a high school student, has built a group of friends he enjoys seeing each summer at Anahoe's 'camp'. He spends his days participating in summer-themed activities designed to support his 1EP goals while helping him build independence and develop socially.
Students with complex, multiple disabilities from cerebral palsy can easily lose skills that require repeated practice and engagement - particularly those related to the use of assistive technology - during summer vacation. ESY helps these students maintain and often master these skills in a more relaxed camp-like atmosphere. For students who are medically fragile, it also provides the necessary 24/7 medical care that gives parents peace of mind entrusting their child's care to others for what is often the first time.
The landmark Armstrong v. Kline legal decision in 1979 mandated evaluation of students with severe disabilities for ESY 'to maximize self-sufficiency.' HMS recognized the need for summer programming to maintain skills well before that decision was rendered, and has been offering an extended summer therapy program since the 1960s, now providing it as an ESY option.
Families and school districts choose ESY at HMS and other residential schools for a variety of reasons. Many families care deeply about keeping their child in their home school district to build community, yet feel the need for expert insight into their child's program. ESY allows those students access to this expertise for a concentrated period of time. When summer ends, HMS provides the home district with a plan to adapt what worked over the summer to their setting to help the child maintain the skills they've learned. Explains HMS director of education Christina Coia, "We're not in competition with districts. Part of our mission is to share our expertise with students who are not enrolled."
For families considering a residential program, ESY provides a short term opportunity to try the more intensive enviroment and see if it's what they want. It gives the child a chance to try staying overnight at school and to evaluate what that kind of environment feels like.
Still other families seek ESY to obtain an extended evaluation by an objective, expert outside party.
Over the past four years, Anahoe's family has utilized ESY for all of those reasons. "When we first considered ESY, my two main goals were for Anahoe to communicate and to use a motorized wheelchair," explains his mother, Ashana O'Connell. "Anahoe's progress had come to a standstill, and I knew I had to do something before it was too late. Within five minutes of walking through the door at HMS, I had a feeling that I had not had in a long time - hope. Hope that I had finally found a place just for Anahoe. A place where Anahoe was not made to fit in to be like other kids, because everyone there was just like him, and my daughter and I were the ones who were different."
"After Anahoe's initial evaluation for ESY, I took a leap of faith," says O'Connell, "and we had the best possible outcome. HMS found a place to put a switch so Anahoe could start augmentative communication. At home we had been told this was impossible."
Anahoe underwent numerous surgeries that next school year and his progress stalled. He returned to ESY at HMS that second summer in need of a stable environment capable of managing his complex educational, medical and therapeutic needs. After rehabilitating over the summer, Anahoe split each month during the 2012/2013 school year between HMS and his home school, with all of the educators collaborating to meet his needs. …