Fans of Dr. Seuss will remember fondly his last book, Hooray for Diffendoofer Day, about a unique school that celebrates individuality—unknown to many East End parents, the spirit of Diffendoofer School is alive and well in Wainscott, at the Child Development Center of the Hamptons (CDCH). A tuition-free charter school, CDCH has been meeting the needs of both special needs and neurotypical kids in a unique, inclusionary environment since 2001.
“It’s more like a private school setting with public school objectives,” remarked Susan Vinski, special education consultant at CDCH. Charter schools are part of the free public school system, and adhere to all New York State Standards of Education but with the ability to adapt to each child’s individual needs. At CDCH, special education, general education, and gifted children all learn together in a cooperative environment. Fourth Grade co-teacher Chris Martin adds “We are very proud of having established a reputation as nurturing, and a focus on academic rigor without sacrificing that characteristic.”
The school got its start in 1997, when a local mom, Dawn Zimmerman, wanted to find an educational program for her autistic son, Jon, one that could meet his social and academic needs. By the time Zimmerman waded through the red tape to get CDCH off the ground, Jon had aged out of elementary school, but Zimmerman didn’t abandon her project. “She said that she got into it because of her son, but she continued on because she felt so strongly about it.” Martin’s colleague, 4th grade co-teacher Pamela Furey comments. Furey and her colleagues share Zimmerman’s passion for the school, as do the parents and students the school has served.
Class sizes vary, but with a 9 to 1 student-teacher ratio, each child receives enough individual attention to flourish, and the inclusionary atmosphere has yielded some gratifying results. “There is little to no bullying,” Vinski reports. “They respect each other. They are often told to work out their own problems.”
Vinski talked about three children who recently moved from a self-contained classroom to working with their neurotypical peers. “These three kids have blossomed, socially and academically and the other students are learning from them—it isn’t forced. It’s just happening naturally.”
All three teachers also point out how the school benefits general education and gifted children, who may need a different social atmosphere than district schools can provide. CDCH is able to observe and monitor a child’s development and constantly adapt to the changing educational and social needs of each child.
Currently, enrollment at the charter school stands at 64 students, but Vinski and her colleagues are hoping to increase that number by at least 20 or more students, which is necessary to sustain the school financially and ensure its continued survival. While there are some students commuting 90 minutes each way to attend CDCH, many area parents don’t know that CDCH exists, how it can benefit their child, or that it is an available, free, alternative to district schools. To help spread the word, Furey created a gofundme.com page last month in hopes of raising $500,000, filled with heartfelt testimonials from families and students, ranging the gamut from autistic children to even just the painfully shy.
Vinski invites parents to visit the school and see exactly what CDCH can offer their child. “We have open enrollment. Parents can contact us, visit the classrooms and observe.” Martin adds, “They will get to see the model and the magic.”
“Parents do have a choice,” Vinski remarks, stressing that charter schools are public, tuition-free, and are still subject to the same academic standards as any other public school. CDCH is the alternative that can literally change a child’s life.
“There is a humility that comes from seeing the effect you can have on a child’s life,” Martin sums up.
Vinski agrees. “It is really something to be seen.”