Two young, male IDEAL students with hands on hips and a tree in the background

This article by Katelin Walling was published in the March 2019 edition of Big Apple Parent.

The IDEAL School of Manhattan Provides an Inclusive Learning Environment with a Focus on Social Justice

At this inclusive, independent school on the Upper West Side, children with special needs learn alongside their neurotypical peers.

The IDEAL School of Manhattan, a coed, independent school on the Upper West Side provides an inclusive learning environment for its students. Plus, with a focus on social justice and service learning, students learn the importance of celebrating everyone's differences. 

"Both my children have a real strong understanding of people’s differences…and how everybody is stronger when they’re all working together,” says Jeff Frank, father of Milo, a fifth-grader, and Eira, a first-grader, who are enrolled at The IDEAL School of Manhattan, located on the Upper West Side. He credits their understanding to the school’s community and educational philosophy.

The IDEAL School is an inclusive, coed, independent school for kindergarten through 12th grades. It was founded by three families of children with Down syndrome who wanted their children to learn alongside neurotypical peers, according to Joseph Kemp, director of communications for The IDEAL School.  

While neither of Frank’s children have Individualized Education Programs, he says they both needed a little extra instruction, which they weren’t getting at their previous school. When he and his wife were looking for a new school for their children, “IDEAL became an ideal choice because we really enjoyed the idea of having an individualized learning center, so every child is working at their own pace regardless of their obstacles or their learning needs,” Frank says.

The IDEAL School of Manhattan reinforces the message of inclusivity through its social justice and service learning programs. “Inclusion becomes, essentially, a civil rights issue, so I think it makes sense that their social justice curriculum is very much at the center of their emphasis on inclusion,” Frank says. “All the messages that you would teach in inclusion about respect, about communication, about cooperation, all of those things lend themselves to the social justice curriculum. …It teaches children that they have to support each other and be allies even when the issue isn’t affecting them directly.” And it’s something he says his children have internalized.

“Even more so than my wife’s and my appreciation for IDEAL, I think my children love it most. They look forward to going to school every day,” Frank says. “When my son first visited IDEAL, he walked away saying, ‘I feel like these children are just like me, these are my people.’”

Students and teachers lined up in a professional kitchen

On November 27, #GivingTuesday, all IDEAL students in Grades K-12 participated in projects that they helped to design. Lower School (K-5) students and faculty worked together to decide what type of service each class would provide, while Upper School students were given the choice of joining six different groups organized by faculty with student input. Both divisions concluded the day with community assemblies where the groups shared reflections on their work.

Kindergarten students wanted to give back directly to their school and asked the Lower School community to vote on several ideas for their school beautification project, finally settling on potted plants in hand-decorated planters. On Tuesday, the kindergarten students purchased plants and decorated pots. The next day, they visited classrooms and offices to deliver the plants.

First grade students started a personal item drive for the B’nai Jeshurun women’s shelter by developing a collection list and creating posters to hang throughout the school. The students will take the collected items and create care packages to be delivered on December 19.

The two second grade classes joined together with their classroom teachers and the Lower School arts team to travel to the Carter Burden Network senior center in East Harlem. They brought handmade cards and letters for their soon-to-be new friends. The students made scratch art with the seniors, they danced, dined, chatted, sang holiday songs, and read their letters. The hosts and visitors had an enjoyable visit and the second graders are hoping to return soon to put on a performance.

Third grade students have been learning about activism in class and began their service learning initiatives early in the school year. Before Halloween, they advocated for gender-neutral Halloween costume displays, writing letters to Party City and Mayor de Blasio. They are currently studying Native American history and used their research on Tuesday to inform their advocacy efforts moving forward.

The fourth grade class made blankets for Project Linus. Students and teachers worked together cutting and sewing fabric with fun patterns into throw blankets which will be delivered to children who need the security, warmth, and comfort that only a blanket can provide.

Students in 5A added to the mindfulness video library they started earlier in the year. In the series, students stage scenarios in which mindfulness exercises can help solve everyday interpersonal problems. Meanwhile, 5B took a tour of the school building and compiled a list of ways in which IDEAL can strengthen its commitment to recycling. They will present their findings and suggestions to school administrators.

Upper School students were organized into six groups visiting a variety of nonprofit organizations. One group worked in the B’nai Jeshurun kitchen to prepare lunches and a dinner for the women’s shelter. When the students and faculty members finished preparing meals, they decorated the tablecloth for the coming guests.

The second group traveled to the Jewish Association Serving the Aging (JASA) Club 76 Senior Center on West 76th Street. The group served lunch, participated in an exercise class, and enjoyed art projects with the guests in attendance.

Farther north, a group of 16 students plus faculty members worked with the Central Park Conservancy to clean up the area around the North Meadow Recreation Center. Their in-depth analysis of the trash they collected was presented at the assembly that followed.

A group of 18 traveled downtown to the Adaptive Design Association for hands-on training in communication including Morse code, used by some individuals with disabilities due to its two-symbol simplicity. Workstations were available for bracelet making (beads as Morse code), soldering, and hands-free typing.

Twelve students joined the West Side Campaign Against Hunger on 86th Street, working in the supermarket-stye food bank to organize donated supplies. A second group of 13 performed on the same street for a grateful group of senior citizens at Atria West 86. Upper School Music Teacher Will Simbol accompanied the students and a few faculty members through some of their favorites, including “Rise Up,” “Empire State of Mind,” and “Hallelujah.” The group also took requests from the audience!

IDEAL’s #GivingTuesday was an opportunity for students to advocate for causes they care about, take on leadership roles, meet with members of the greater community, and celebrate our school and mission beyond our walls.

Ms. Bruzzo playing guitar and Mr. Simbol playing octavina

On Friday, November 9, IDEAL held both the Lower School Identity Museum and the Faculty and Staff Arts Exhibit. Faculty members exhibited their talents starting with Upper School music teacher Will Simbol, who played two traditional Southeast Asian songs on traditional instruments, one of which he made himself. Upper School history teacher Elvis Alves, also a published author, read his poem, “Black Boy in Love.” Mr. Simbol joined Lower School music teacher Emy Bruzzo for a rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Fifth grade teacher Jazzmin Brown taught the audience about the history of head wraps while demonstrating some style choices with willing students and her co-teacher, Mr. Gorman. Mr. Davey led his first-grade students on two songs, accompanying them on guitar. Finally, third-grade teacher Melanie Stuart played the fun (and sneaky!) classical tune, “Immer Kleiner.” Check out the videos and pictures on Facebook and take a look at the visual art displayed on the first and fourth floors.