A Special Needs School in Need of Special Help

The last time Tom played organized sports in league was back in grade school when he played for his little-league baseball team.  A couple weeks after joining the team, the coach pulled Tom, who has Down Syndrome, and his mom aside to talk to them privately.  The coach said, in the nicest way possible, that it was distracting to the other players and the other parents on the team to always have to deal with Tom’s special needs.  Tom has never played in a sports league since that day, never had teammates that supported him as friends, never knew what winning felt like.

These days, Tom attends the McAuley School where he loves to play sports in gym class.  During the spring, he goes out on the McAuley School grounds to play baseball, soccer, and kickball alongside his classmates.  But during the winter, when it becomes too cold to go outside, gym class must be held inside.  And because the school does not have a multipurpose space, gym class must be held in the hallways and in a greenhouse.  So once the weather gets cold in November, the teachers pack up all the soccer and kickball equipment until the spring and must come up with creative ways to keep students active in the hallway while trying hard not to disturb the classes in session.  The students still get to participate in gym class, but it is not the same when everyone must constantly hush each other to keep quiet.

However, before McAuley can solve its problems with the multipurpose space and allow its students to actively play sports throughout the year, it needs to solve more than a few critical problems.  For one, the school does not have air conditioning.  Not only does this problem make it hard for students with learning disabilities to pay attention in class on a June, but also poses a serious health problem for students with respiratory problems.  The school is also situated in an old Catholic school building.   Unlike public buildings built today, it was not built to provide any extra means of accessibility to students who have problems walking.  For example, the school does not have an elevator, so students must walk up stairs with much difficulty.

The McAuley School took on these great financial challenges at the outset because it had a vision that could not be attained in special-ed programs in public schools.  It believed that it could one day be a school exclusively for children and adults with special needs that was fully self-sufficient.  To do so, the school fully believed that its Real Life Real Choices program employ its very own graduating students as the school’s very own maintenance and clean-up staff.  If successful, the school would become its very own self-sufficient community that would give students a feeling of independence and ownership that they have rarely felt before.

Right now, the McAuley School is asking for two million dollars worth of donations to try to fix the problems.  Its goal of self-sufficiency through the Real Life Real Choices program is still the school’s major focus.  However, without the funding, McAuley must keep at its goal with the same perseverance and inventiveness that keeps the school running on a daily basis.  Fortunately, the administrators at McAuley are not going through a problem that has not been resolved before.  The Matheny School, which is about 20 miles down the road in Peapack, New Jersey, started out in 1946 with $3000 from a GI Bill loan.  Lacking funding and facilities for the first few years, the school steadily increased its enrollment as more and more people heard about the top-notch education and care provided by the school.  Eight years later, in 1954, it moved to a new building.  What is even more unprecedented is that in 1970, the school used its stable financial base to establish a special children’s hospital alongside the school.  Today, the Matheny school serves 12 New Jersey counties, providing an excellent education and hospital services for children with special needs.  And Matheny not only has a gym, but also an on-site recreational therapist to assist with the physical education classes.  So the dream of a gym for McAuley is possible, and so Tom’s dreams of playing all his favorite sports in the winter.


  1. Matheny. Matheny Medical and Education Center. Last modified May 23, 2012.
  2. Image credit (Creative Commons): Indiana Public Media. “School Hallway.” Flickr. Last modified April 8, 2011.

Evan Jin is a third-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in chemistry, and is a Senior Editor of The Triple Helix Online. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.