The Children’s Institute

Handling the sudden end to regular school days has been hard for students everywhere. There were extra challenges for The Children’s Institute, whose Day School serves students with disabilities from 60 school districts throughout Western Pennsylvania.

“When we needed to shut down in-person operations due to Gov. Wolf’s statewide order, we heard from parents who were terrified about how their children would be supported,” said Dr. Wendy Pardee, president and CEO of The Children’s Institute. “But we have seen successes across every facet of our work, including areas where we never fathomed that we would be able to use technology.”

Providing educational instruction and doing speech, occupational and physical therapies remotely certainly requires extra creativity, but it has also opened up new opportunities. “Our team members have been delivering more tailored instruction because they have a greater appreciation for the home environment—things like what the steps look like or how high the microwave is in their home kitchen,” Pardee explained. “So they have been making the appropriate modifications to adjust their teaching to each student.”

Pardee told of one 15-year-old student with a wheelchair who has responded in unexpected ways to in-home education. “Learning through technology has really ignited this student’s interest,” she said. “He has exceeded his IEP [Individualized Education Plan] goals, can operate his wheelchair better than ever, and is showing a great desire for independence. He’s actually zooming away from his parents when they walk together—and they have been blown away by seeing his skills improve.”

The Children’s Institute’s prom is typically a deeply valued event because the students enjoy an experience like any other high school students. Normally, students and staff decorate the school building in accord with the prom theme; one year, for example, the hallways were turned into fields reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, complete with a full-scale tin man, cowardly lion and scarecrow.

That couldn’t happen this year, but team members were determined to provide an equivalent experience, so the whole prom went virtual. The students dressed up in their prom attire and decorated their Zoom backgrounds to match the “Under the Sea” theme, enjoyed live music and socialized as a group for the first time in two months.

The Children’s Institute team also took the time to individualize “Graduation On-the-Go,” traveling across Western Pennsylvania to each of the 18 graduating seniors’ homes with personalized diplomas, special T-shirts, a recorded version of “Pomp and Circumstance,” and activities specific to that student’s interests.

“It was a moment of joy for everyone,” Pardee said. “Our team members bond deeply with our students, so giving our seniors a proper farewell, rather than having less than we would have in any other year, was really important. I am very proud of the amazing experiences our team has created.”