By Jano Tantongco
Imagine being asked to change your eye color. Imagine being incessantly pushed and prodded into doing so, even though you know you just can’t.
That was the metaphor that Kevin Gersh, founder and president of the Gersh Academy, used to describe the pressures that students on the autism spectrum face on a daily basis.
Watching his students let loose and relax at the academy’s field day hosted at West Hills Day Camp on Friday, Gersh explained that over 100 of the children ziplining, swimming and drawing have been kicked out of multiple public schools because of their condition. He said that these weren’t autistic children playing, but rather, “just children being children.”
“You don’t ask children to change who they are to meet the educational structure. You change the educational environment to meet the children’s needs,” Gersh said. “It’s simple, but we don’t do that in our public education.”
Tyler Schmalenberger, 21, has been attending the West Hempstead location of Gersh Academy since 2012.
“It’s improved me, it’s made me more independent. It’s made me a lot more social,” Schmalenberger said. “I used to not be able to go out and buy food on my own or go out to the store without having struggles. Now I’m really good with it thanks to this school.”
Alfred Funny, an intervention specialist with Gersh for four years, helps students develop skills and take a “therapeutic approach” to children.
“Our approach is very loving and supportive,” Funny, 27, said. “We don’t ever want to judge the kids. If you’re upset and you’re angry, we’re going to sit here and we’re going to figure it out. It doesn’t matter how long it takes.”
The academy is part of a network of schools owned and operated by the Gersh family. Kevin’s father, Edward Gersh, founded the West Hills Day Camp in 1954. Over the years, Kevin implemented his own programs, founding the Gersh Academy in 1991 after a teacher at the network’s Montessori School wished to kick out a child on the autism spectrum from the classroom.
“I changed the classroom structure to meet the child’s needs,” he said. “Asperger’s, 25 years ago, wasn’t even on the radar. Nobody knew what it was.”
Thus began the creation of the academy, which now has four branches, two on Long Island in Hauppauge and West Hempstead, and two in Puerto Rico.
Ronell Culbengan, 17, attending Gersh since October 2014, called the academy “well-fit” for his needs. He said used to attend Pelham Preparatory Academy in the Bronx but had to leave after getting into verbal fights with other students.
“I changed when I went to this school,” he said. “As I got along, as I got into the school, and got into studying, it’s what fit me.”
The sentiment was shared by 18-year-old Dakota Gentry, who felt like he was flying as he rode the zipline. Attending Gersh for six years, he previously attended a public school he described as “not a good setting at all,” where he was bullied every day. But now, he has felt a newfound sense of progression.
“My eyes were open to a lot of things that they were closed about before like when I was in public school,” said Gentry, who has autism. “You feel secure, but at the same time, Gersh pushes you to do better, to become the true you, the you that you know you can be.”