On a particularly hot day in July, several people cart crates of new furniture from the hall into the large, bright new home of Marist High School’s Focus program.
While the Focus program, which is geared towards students with learning disabilities, isn’t new, it has grown significantly since it was first developed 12 years ago, expanding from one teacher and a handful of students to a program that requires three teachers and scores of students.
The problem is that while the need and manpower has increased, until this year the space to accommodate the students remained the same as it was when first instituted under then Principal Steven Schlitte.
In September, however, when the doors open, the program – which is funded by grants through the Bayonne School District – will have new digs and enough equipment to fill the needs of the students.
“Marist High School truly tries to reach each student who comes here.” -- Sister Helen Moores
The old room was too small and didn’t have everything the program needed. But the new room, in conjunction with the classroom next door, will have significant resources to call on, including smart boards and other technology.
On this day
On this day, Sister Helen Moores oversees the arrival of the furniture and talks about how the program has grown since its inception 12 years ago.
Waiting at the door to be carried in are new desks, tables, new computers (including laptops), and even a copy machine.
“We’ll have everything we need,” says Sister Helen.
Sister Helen teaches the freshmen and some juniors, while her fellow teacher, an employee of the Bayonne School District, Audrey Jacobson, teaches sophomores and juniors. A third Marist teacher, Ken Sinclair, is usually responsible for seniors and some juniors.
The need has grown
Brother Steve, when still principal of Marist, founded the program, realizing that there was a need to provide something extra for this part of the student population – individual attention that these students need in order to keep up with their class work in other classes.
Done in conjunction with the Bayonne Public School District, the Focus program has three teachers, each of whom works with no more than five students at a time.
Working in conjunction with the teachers in the other classes, the Focus group finds out areas where each student needs help and provides an extra push to help them learn.
“We talk with the teachers and find out if there is a test coming up or if students need some other kind of help,” Sister Helen said.
Using materials supplied by the teachers, the Focus room supports studies in other classes.
“If a student needs to do research, then we can help them do it here,” she said.
Students attending the high school usually have a study period. For those involved with the Focus Room, this becomes their study period.
To keep on top of the needs of the children, the school’s Child Study teams meets to review the program.
People in these classes do not lack intelligence, they simply have some learning disability that blocks them from learning at the same rate as traditional students, said Jacobson.
Some students may not remain classified all four years they are at the high school, and they can be taken out of the program if the teachers feel they have overcome their learning issues.
“Even classified, these students often achieve. Some make the honor roll; they simply need more time and extra help to achieve these things,” Jacobson said.
Half of what the Focus Room does is help to build up confidence and self-esteem, especially for when students leave high school and enter the work force or college.
“Marist High School truly tries to reach each student who comes here,” Sister Helen said. “Many other Catholic high schools do not have a program like this.”
Jacobson is a special needs teacher who started earlier this year. She said the biggest issue is advocacy for these students in high school. Many of the students who go on to college from this program must face a harsher reality in that no one will know they have learning disabilities.
“They don’t take that part of their records on to college,” Jacobson said. “It is up to them to ask for the help they need. Part of what we do here is to teach them how to ask, and encourage them to seek help they might need.”
Many won’t, even though they are entitled to get more time on some tests and other considerations if they speak up. Some are ashamed to talk about it.
The Focus program works with parents and students to help get kids ready for that other world, teaching them that they have to speak up.
“We try to teach our students to become their own advocates,” Jacobson said. “They need to say something if they need help.”
The program is funded by a grant that passed through the Bayonne school district. Jacobson is an employee of the school district, and taught at Midtown Community School before coming to Marist.
Sister Helen was a special needs teacher in both public and private schools, including Clarendon School in Secaucus and St. Aloysius Catholic School in Jersey City. She was also a principal for many years. Ken Sinclair, the third teacher, is from Bayonne High School.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.