The 4-year-olds lie on their stomachs, chins resting on fists, legs swinging side to side like pendulums, heads cocked to listen closely as the teacher reads aloud a story about small bugs and big bugs and bigger bugs lining up for a parade.
“Ohhh, so many bugs,” the teacher exclaims. “Dylan, what was one of the bugs in the book?”
Heads turn as the teacher points. “What’s this bug called?”
“Lady,” the boy says at a near whisper.
“Ladybug,” he says after a pause, more confident.
The teacher, pleased, asks the group if they can identify the long bug. A hand raises, heads turn, the teacher nods and a child utters “caterpillar” with some difficulty and then triumph.
On a September day not so long ago, but really quite long ago to a preschooler, some of these children were just starting their first day at Helping Hands School, a private nonprofit preschool for children ages 3 to 5 with special needs. Others in the group, typically developing children or those without special needs, were coming to the same five acres of farmland in Clifton Park for regular preschool.
Some days, they would have class together, observing and interacting with each other during story time, snack time, playtime and more. But when they first showed up, interaction wasn’t a given.
“Our classes look very different in September than they do in July,” said Dianne Burke, the school’s executive director. “These are children who have been here one or two years now. But on that first day, you’ll see students who may not even be communicating or aware of their peers. By the time they get here, they can raise their hand, take turns, talk to the other kids.”
Acquiring these social skills at such a young age can make a world of difference to a child with Down syndrome, autism, cognitive delays or anxiety disorders. There are children with speech and language difficulties who benefit from observing the speech patterns of typically developing children and children with gross motor delays who have trouble standing, walking or controlling their limbs who benefit from individualized physical therapy and play time with the other students.
Founded in 1981 by Kathleen and Dave Ross, Helping Hands School is about to embark on a new chapter. After more than three decades in an idyllic farmland setting that feels like it’s from another era, the school is relocating next month to a new, state-of-the-art facility in an office park off Exit 10 of the Northway.
The move is both bittersweet and exciting, Burke said. Tuition rates have remained the same for the past six years, while overhead costs like employee benefits and health insurance have risen. If it weren’t for the unpredictable costs associated with maintaining a farmhouse from the 1850s and several outbuildings, the move likely wouldn’t be happening.
“This being an old farmhouse and old location, it’s very unpredictable from year to year, what it’s going to cost us to maintain it,” Burke said. “We’re talking about things like having to replace roofs or windows or doors, plumbing issues and so on. So our board looked into finding a location where costs could be more predictable.”
Construction on the new building at 4 Fairchild Square should wrap up by Friday. They will start moving stuff over around Aug. 18, a few days after summer session at the current location ends. Under the terms of the new lease with MJ Properties, the school won’t be responsible for maintenance costs.
There are other perks, too. The new building is easier to access from the Northway and is more secure, with a $13,000 access entry system that features automatically locking doors.
“When parents come on tours, they do ask about security, and that was something that in the past we couldn’t say about our site,” Burke said.
Perhaps the biggest improvement is that all of the school’s programs and students will soon be under one roof.
“One of the difficult things is in the winter having to walk in the parking lot from building to building,” Burke said. “With the kids, you have to put on boots and coats to go from one building to the next.”
Still, it will be a sad day when the school’s 60 employees and 220 students say goodbye to their current campus, along a winding stretch of Werner Road amid rows of birch trees and oak trees whose low-hanging branches skim the surface of a pond that buzzes with mosquitoes on a humid summer day.
The pond is a favorite among students when they head outside to work on gross motor skills or play with friends on the playground. They spot bugs, fish, frogs and turtles and some days bring stale bread to feed the ducks and geese from a dock. The natural setting of the property, surrounded by white picket fencing, made learning about the environment an inherent part of the school day.
That’s one of the reasons Helping Hands School has decided to go full-bore on a large new playground for the new site, which will also feature a gym and multipurpose room. The playground will feature Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant surfacing that allows children in wheelchairs to enjoy it, as well.
Helping Hands has decided to raise money to pay for the playground. Collision Experts is donating $2 for every $1 otherwise donated toward the project. A fundraiser was held at the recent July 4th celebration at Clifton Commons. Local businesses and parents and former students now grown have purchased individual pickets of a fence that will surround the playground. Those pickets will be engraved with the name of the donor.
“We are leaving three playgrounds behind, and we have a bike riding and trike riding area here,” Burke said. “So the new playground is very important to us.”
Program Coordinator Sandy Rivenburg recalled all the times she used to encourage children to count the turtles and fish they saw near the pond.
“Because these things are here, we’ve made the most of it,” she said. “Look, there are some geese. How many geese? We will do similar things at the new site, but it won’t be as easy. We want a place to run and play.”
Inside a classroom painted robin’s egg blue, a half-dozen 4-year-olds sat on tiny wooden chairs, waiting their turn as the teacher prepared their snacks one by one. The last week had included a lesson on bugs, so the day’s snack would be a twist on ants on a log — celery smeared with peanut butter and topped with raisins. Instead, the group had ants on a rock — a cracker topped with soy butter (for those with peanut allergies) and raisins.
“These kids are just awesome,” said Karen Nelson, a teacher at the school for the past 25 years. “They bring so much to the classroom, both the general ed kids and the special ed kids. To bring them together is a very rewarding experience. At this stage, they start telling knock-knock jokes. I can’t help but laugh.”
Integrated classrooms were first introduced at Helping Hands School in 2001 and took off as parents and teachers noticed the huge benefits this integration reaped for both general and special education students.
Students with special needs learned from students modeling typical motor skills, speech patterns and social behavior, while the typically developing students learned patience and empathy for those who are different from them.
“All the children learn about how we’re all different but we can still be friends,” Nelson said. “We talk a lot about friendships and cooperation and working together. I think it really helps the children as they go into public school because you do hear about bullying and other issues a lot.”
As the 4-year-olds munched on their snacks, they listened to the teacher expounding on ants, ladybugs and caterpillars. One student raised his hand.
“Excuse me,” he said, before asking a question about butterflies.
“Do you hear that?” she said excitedly. “Manners.”