In 1959, clinical psychologist Dr. Milton Brutten sought to fill a void in special-needs education in the Greater Philadelphia Area. He envisioned a dynamic organization that took a tailored approach to engaging, guiding and growing students with a range of learning difficulties and disorders— through rigorous academic programs, immersion in the community and other unique experiences to help these boys and girls gain independence, self-esteem and the skills they need to discover their true potential.
Welcome to The Vanguard School, a private educational institution on the campus of Valley Forge Educational Services, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Malvern. The school has earned the distinction of being an Approved Private School—one of only 36 in Pennsylvania— to accept students with an exceptionality of autism spectrum disorder, speech-language disorders, emotional disturbances or other health impairment.
Approximately 260 students, ages four to 21, hailing from school districts throughout the region, come to The Vanguard School to prepare for the next phases of their lives. Class sizes range anywhere from three to five students in the elementary school, to six to 10 in the middle school, high school and the transition center, led by educators with unparalleled training specific to their needs. All teachers are certified in special education and receive continuous professional development. In addition, all utilize evidence-based instruction, designed to teach students life skills and foster future independence, according to Tim Krushinski, the school’s director.
“We spend a lot of time training our teachers in autism, behavior, communication and social skills, but our teachers are very experienced with classrooms of all types,” he says. “Our classes are not something where our teachers come into school, pull something off of the Internet and teach it; our curriculum committee reviews a number of well-researched and wellreviewed programs before being used with any of our kids. Whether it’s reading, language arts or math, we make sure that whatever we are planning to use with our students has been tried, true and tested with special-education students.”
The Vanguard School’s classrooms mirror the school’s tailored academic approach. For example, while one classroom may provide intensive therapy addressing both the behavioral and emotional needs of its students, another may focus solely on functional communication and language-based needs. Dr. Darren Levin, the school’s clinical director, calls particular attention to the “STRIVE” classroom.
“The STRIVE classroom came about as a result of our staff identifying that a certain percentage of children are not succeeding in the way we want them to and the way their parents expect them to,” he explains. “That’s why we created an environment where students are getting specific skills in verbal acquisition, communication and behavior support.”
Part of the Community
Dr. Levin says The Vanguard School’s team of related services professionals including counselors, school psychologists and behavioral analysts continually think “outside the box,” and this is what sets it apart from other schools. In addition to its evidence-based teaching curriculum, the school strives to find increasingly effective tools for encouraging and instructing students to self-advocate—a critical complement to independence and the ability to think for oneself.
In other words, students must be able to understand their difficulties or disabilities and to know how these differences or disabilities affect their ability to learn. If they’re able to do that, according to Dr. Levin, they are likely to successfully meet their future goals, both in their education and in other aspects of their lives.
“Our mission is to get our students to be functioning independently, and to be happy and successful,” he adds. “We don’t want to do things for the students; we want to do things with them. Once they finish their educational journey with us, we’re not going to be there with them anymore, so we want them to be in the best position in order to be contributing members of their community.”
At The Vanguard School, such preparation begins as early as middle school. As an example, Krushinski describes the Work Orientation Readiness Center, where students gain hands-on work experience, first by completing simple jobs such as copying or collating files. At the same time, the school offers frequent assessments so students can hone in on their career interests and find their way onto “the right path” once their days at The Vanguard School have come to an end.
“Through community-based vocational training, we want our students to have their first workplace experience by the time they are seniors in high school,” Krushinski says. “The seniors will go out and work in their community—maybe at an Acme or a Boscov’s—to get real-world job experience.”
One assessment new to the Vanguard curriculum this year is the Practical Assessment Exploration System, known internally as PAES. A student can complete the PAES assessment, which is designed to provide keen insight into each student’s employable skills and assets, in anywhere from 20 to 40 hours.
“This is our first year using the PAES lab, and we are really looking forward to it,” says Krushinski. “We also have a lot of career exploration available to students; our students participate in community-based instruction, and these trips happen weekly. Students in the transition program, 18-21 years of age, participate in community-based vocational training at a number of businesses in our area. We get them the experience needed as early as possible.”
For those over the age of 18, Valley Forge Educational Services offers Customized Workforce Solutions, or CWS. This program helps adults with disabilities secure “meaningful and competitive” employment, according to Dr. Grace Fornicola, executive director of Valley Forge Educational Services.
“Those principles—meaningful and competitive— are very important to us,” says Dr. Fornicola. “The employment counseling, research, job search and support we provide through CWS enables these individuals to go out and find just that. We remain focused on helping individuals achieve independence through finding and maintaining a meaningful job at a proper wage.”
Whether it is a student or an adult, The Vanguard School and Valley Forge Educational Services has a simple yet ambitious goal, as Dr. Fornicola sees it: “ensuring that everyone we touch has the opportunity to achieve his or her fullest potential and become contributing members of their home community.” The mission remains true today, just as it was when The Vanguard School doors opened nearly 60 years ago.
THE VANGUARD SCHOOL
A Program of Valley Forge
1777 N. Valley Road | Malvern, Pa.
(610) 296-6725 x128
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life Magazine, October, 2017.