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An 'alternative education' program in Cuyahoga County nurtures students with multiple disabilities

Chagrin Falls resident John Manning had a hard time finding a place for his four-year-old daughter Mia to get the specialized care and education she needs each day.

“She’s non-ambulatory, categorized as pre-verbal, has 25-plus medical issues listed on her history, including things like epilepsy,” he said. “She’s predominantly tube fed.”

So Manning was thrilled when he came across the LeafBridge Alternative Education Program with United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Cleveland. It’s a Brooklyn Heights-based education center that provides education and therapy services customized for the needs of students with multiple disabilities.

In the case of Mia - who is functionally blind - that means a room with low light, with instruction from staff trained around her visual impairment, along with physical, occupational, speech and other therapies. Manning said there’s a “noticeable difference” when she comes home from school.

Some of the details and information that I get back from my daughter's teachers and her therapists are things that I would never notice or pay attention to because I'm not a professional or specialist in that area,” Manning added.

Harper learns numbers and colors in the elementary classroom.
Kelly Krabill
Ideastream Public Media
Harper learns numbers and colors in the elementary classroom at the LeafBridge Alternative Education Program in Brooklyn Heights in October 2022.

Mia is one of 14 students at LeafBridge, which accepts students ranging from preschool to age 22. Students who have multiple disabilities often face challenges when it comes to learning and growing in more traditional classrooms, which typically lack the resources and individual attention a specialized program like LeafBridge can offer.

Beth Lucas, president and CEO of United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Cleveland, which runs LeafBridge, says the education program - which is part of a broader program, also called LeafBridge, that provides outpatient and intensive therapy to children - tailors its services to those students’ needs.

"The idea behind this program is that students can form connections with other students with disabilities in a safe space that also offers therapeutic programs," Lucas said. "So physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy."

That combination of therapy and education looks different for each student. For example, James, a 15-year-old student at LeafBridge, sits next to an aide in a darkened classroom as calming music plays, with a communication device in front of him to help him answer questions about the solar system using words like “orbit.” Meanwhile, in another room filled with fall-themed activities, 8-year-old Silas gets a second to roll around in some hay after correctly identifying “H” as the first letter of that word.

Outreach coordinator Carrie Brown noted LeafBridge has a significant amount of what’s called “adaptive technology” to assist students in walking, talking and moving around, from things like James’ communication device to upright walkers.

Lead teaching assistant Shannon Carmont helps James during science. The Alternative Program at LeafBridge Education Services of UCP of Greater Cleveland offers one-on-one support for students.
Kelly Krabill
Ideastream Public Media
Lead teaching assistant Shannon Carmont helps James during science. The Alternative Program at LeafBridge Education Services of UCP of Greater Cleveland offers one-on-one support for students.

LeafBridge isn’t the only educational option for students with disabilities in Cuyahoga County. Parma City School District has the A.C.E.S. Academy, which focuses on students with autism; the Cleveland Clinic has the Lerner School for Autism; and the Julie Billiart Schools are Catholic K-8 schools in northeast Ohio that offer specialized education for students with disabilities.

However, many of those programs focus specifically on students with autism. Amanda Stohrer, associate director of the LeafBridge program, said her program is also unique in that it has a slightly broader scope.

“We’re not the only program, but we are one of the only programs that caters to the very specific needs of children with complex disabilities,” Stohrer said.

Parent John Manning said even well-funded school districts like his in Chagrin Falls struggle to accommodate students with multiple disabilities.

“They have a pretty good special needs program but it’s unable to meet the needs of my daughter,” he explained.

Nate Stevenson, an associate professor of special education at Kent State University, says laws around educating students with disabilities require students be put in what’s called the least-restrictive environment possible. The least-restrictive environment would typically be a traditional school setting with no student supports, while an educational center like LeafBridge is on the more-restrictive side of the spectrum.

He said there’s costs and benefits to putting children in alternative education programs like LeafBridge.

I'm really glad we can provide this intensive support for this child in this exclusionary setting,” Stevenson said. “That's great. But we also don't want that child to spend their entire rest of their life in an exclusionary setting.”

Student's names hang on cabinets in the elementary classroom at the Alternative Program at LeafBridge Education Services of UCP of Greater Cleveland.
Kelly Krabill
Ideastream Public Media
Student's names hang on cabinets in the elementary classroom at the Alternative Program at LeafBridge Education Services of UCP of Greater Cleveland.

Research shows that students with disabilities learning alongside students without disabilities helps both groups, according to a mid-2022 report from the Ohio Coalition for the Education of Children with Disabilities.

“...included students develop stronger skills in reading and mathematics, have higher rates of attendance, are less likely to have behavioral problems, and are more likely to complete secondary school than students who have not been included,” the report reads.

Stevenson says decisions on enrolling children with disabilities at specialized schools like LeafBridge are not made lightly, with parents and school staff - members of a student’s Individualized Education Program team - analyzing the pros and cons.

If they decide a student should go to a special school, their district sometimes covers the cost, which can range upward of $90,000 per student in LeafBridge’s case, Beth Lucas with United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Cleveland said.

Lucas says some students are able to transition out of the program back to a more traditional school environment after getting equipped with the tools they need to be successful. But not all are able to. LeafBridge also does provide some aid for districts to better accommodate students with disabilities who do attend public schools, as well, including sharing adaptive equipment and therapy services.

Lucas recognizes Leafbridge’s students should be given more opportunities to mix with peers outside the program, but that’s been challenging recently.

“The pandemic has set people with disabilities back, because, you know, a lot of the people we serve are so medically fragile,” Lucas said.

Lucas’ organization recently received a $5 million dollar grant to expand its services, with the hopes of ultimately building a new headquarters that has accessible and specialized indoor and outdoor spaces. With that could come more opportunities for LeafBridge students to meet with students in more traditional classrooms.

Plus, the expansion could also mean more room for more learners, although the program currently does have five or so open spots for new students.

United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Cleveland also has an adult day program that helps adults with disabilities learn job skills and better integrate into their community.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.
Kelly Krabill is a multiple media journalist at Ideastream Public Media. Her work includes photography and videography. Her radio and web reporting covers a wide range of topics across Northeast Ohio.