New York City

The League School

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Transforming the Lives of Children and Young Adults with Emotional and Behavioral Difficulties

I had the opportunity to sit down with Stephanie Golub, MA, CCC-SLP, SDA, Principal of The League School, and learn about her work. Ms. Golub holds a master’s degree in Communication Disorders and has completed post graduate study in School Administration. Ms. Golub is a NYS Licensed Speech/Language Pathologist and is certified in NYS as a School District Administrator. For over 40 years, Ms. Golub has provided service to the population served by the League School and has been instrumental in the further development of educational and mental health services for the school. Under her leadership, the programming has expanded to include a diploma-bound high school program as well as a program for vocational credentialing. Additionally, with her interdisciplinary team, the school has successfully incorporated a restorative and trauma-informed model, which has enabled many students to transition back to less restrictive educational settings or go on to the workforce or higher education.

With such an extensive background, I was curious how Ms. Golub began her work at the League School.  Without hesitation, Ms. Golub was excited to take us down memory lane. “While I was in graduate school, I began to learn about the work of Dr. Carl Fenichel who founded the League School in 1953.   Dr. Fenichel was renowned for what was then a revolutionary way of looking at children with severe social and behavioral deficits. I had an interest in autism in the mid 1970’s after doing volunteer work in the autism unit at Queens Children’s Psychiatric Center at Creedmore State Hospital (QCPC). Although the first cases of autism were identified in the 1940’s and 50’s with indifferent/cold parental interaction as being hypothesized as one of the causes of infantile autism, there was a newfound interest in the study of autism in the 1970’s. When I came to interview at the program in 1977, this unique program was staffed with not only educators, but also with psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, speech/language pathologists, nurses, social workers, creative art therapists, occupational therapists and vocational training staff.  Working with a team comprised of multiple disciplines enlightened me to the varying aspects that one must consider in working with the “whole child”. Over time, through my work at the League School and my extensive understanding of mental health and social issues, I pursued certification in administration and became certified both in School Administration and Supervision and as a School District Administrator.  I have to say, my commitment to this population has never wavered, and I have been a part of the League School community for 45 years!” 45 years at the same organization is unheard of today so kudos to you. 

What does your day to day consist of? I would imagine that it can be quite challenging. “The days at League School are very hectic, but also very rewarding. As our program only admits students who have significant mental health needs and have been referred to us because they have not been able to be successfully educated or maintained in the public sector, there are days with many emergencies, psychiatric consultations and, at times, hospitalizations. Yet, despite the many difficult behavioral and psychiatric issues that arise, the students flourish. They have academic award ceremonies, special events, gym and participate in a special needs competitive basketball team that they love. They love their new playground and show off their talent at the Talent Show. They develop friendships and their parents feel supported.” Your job is truly rewarding and I know there are many students and families out there that are so grateful for what you do as well as the team at the League School.

I’m sure there will be people out there reading this who might think to themselves that they know an individual who can benefit by the programs of the League School. Can you tell us about some of the programs available? The programs at the League School continue to evolve with the field’s increased understanding of the needs of students with mental health disabilities. Over time, we have grown increasingly adept at providing a trauma-informed model of intervention with students who have had traumatic histories, come from difficult backgrounds, or experienced the failure of not being successful in other educational settings. We use a restorative model in which social interaction, making repairs and meaningful consequences are built into the fabric of the school day. Students are able to obtain all of their mental health needs as well as academic studies in one location. We offer psychiatry, psychopharmacology and skilled nursing to all students. Our academic focus is to enable students to the best of their ability, to transition back to less restrictive educational settings at, or close to, grade appropriate. We provide adapted grade appropriate academics to all students and provide them with the skills and opportunity to participate in NYS grade testing. We offer high school students all of the required courses and regents assessments to obtain a NYS high school diploma, as well as a variety of vocational courses and placements/experiences enabling them to earn a Career Development and Vocational Studies credential. In addition to their academic courses, students are provided with milieu mental health services including on-site therapy, group social skills, verbal and art therapy. Moreover, we provide them with technology training and physical education. Some of our electives are horticulture and culinary and we have a small urban farm in our backyard, which is part of an inter-generational program called Smile Farms.” Incredible! I did see some great photos and love that the students have the opportunity to get outside and learn to plant and grow vegetables.  

Let’s talk about the pandemic. How has the League School pivoted during this crucial time? “It’s hard to imagine that the League School could have met this challenge at such short notice.  However, knowing how difficult change is for these traumatized students and their families, we needed to quickly find ways to provide the same level of intervention and treatment support that our students and parents depend on, while keeping everyone safe. Within a few weeks, the school provided chrome books for every student, laptops for every teacher and iPads for each assistant. We ensured that every student had internet access or arranged for free internet access for any family that needed it. When schools began re-opening, we offered three instructional models – five days a week of instruction, hybrid or remote instruction based on family request. The school developed a NYS re-opening plan with social distancing, cleaning protocols, air filtration systems and a COVID response team. For students who were experiencing difficulty with remote instruction, we offered the opportunity to return to in-person instruction at any time with social distancing guidelines. The League School provides a vital service during these difficult times to very vulnerable students.  Recent data has shown an increase in mental health issues with students during the pandemic city-wide, including depression and suicide. There has been a much-publicized need for programs, particularly now, with the kind of mental health services provided by the League School. With the support of our interdisciplinary team, the students at the League School continue to receive much needed therapeutic services and we have not seen an increase in significant mental health issues.” That is great to hear especially since mental health issues have been on the rise!

The League School has been around for almost 7 decades with a tremendous amount of success. What do you attribute to that? “The League School is a very unique program. We are one of the few non-public schools that is approved and funded by the New York State Education Department as well as licensed by the New York State Office of mental health as a day treatment program.  This affords us the opportunity to provide blended academic and mental health services integrated throughout the day to students who have significant mental health, behavioral and/or social disabilities.  All of our students have been recommended for this level of service through the New York City DOE because they do not have a program to meet their highly individual needs and have demonstrated medical necessity for this level of programing due to their mental health diagnoses. Therefore, we are able to provide full time psychiatry, enhanced individualized and group mental health services and have our licensed special education teachers work with this complex population. The interdisciplinary team, which was the hallmark of the program since inception, enables our team to bring their unique expertise into the situation to help students, families and each other provide the tools needed to make each child able to benefit from their education and services.”

I’m sure there are many success stories that you can share with us. “Absolutely! The League School has been successful in helping students transition back to less restrictive educational settings. Each year we are able to transition approximately 15% of our students to school age programs that are not day treatment or are in the public sector. We are able to graduate a high percentage of our high school students with regents or local diplomas and many go on to higher education. 

Several of our students have been successful after they left us either in other schools, higher education or in the workplace. One former student who had been unsuccessful in a public middle school, completed middle school with us and was accepted into high school in a specialized high school program – CUNY Specialized High School. This student came to us and wasn’t able to socialize, focus or deal with his social anxiety. We have another student who is currently in his senior year at SUNY Canton in a highly specialized game design program after graduating from the League School. One of our former students who did his League School vocational training at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, ultimately got a job there! Another former student who is now an adult, was our graduation speaker talking about his career as the owner of a culinary catering business! Many of our former students and families come back each year to celebrate with us during special events sharing positive feedback after transitioning to less restrictive educational settings or graduated.” Amazing! I really hope that the League School becomes the go to school for those individuals with mental challenges. 

Mr. Mark Handelman, CEO of The League School, has an extensive resume and has a son who is autistic. Share a little about his role and what makes him a great leader for the organization. “Mr. Handelman is a great visionary. In addition to his wealth of experience, knowledge of the field and numerous connections within the field, his personal experiences have added to the passion which drives his commitment to all of the programs. He is able to motivate and lead his team by example. His creative thinking, his ideas to further develop each program and to expand our work into the community by creating new programs and exploring options for future development, open new horizons. Since he began as CEO at the League, we have expanded our adult and vocational programs, added a new community program to serve pre-school and school age students and their families within the community setting, and have begun to explore options to increase admissions at the League School.” It sounds like Mr. Handelman is doing an exceptional job as the CEO and is the perfect person for the role especially because he understands first-hand the challenges the students face on a daily basis. “ I couldn’t agree more!”

Tell me about the work of Dr. Mark Owens DO who has been working with students at the League School for nearly two decades. “One of the most unique and important aspects of our program is having the availability of a highly trained and certified Child and Adolescent psychiatrists on our premises.  In addition to enabling families who might not have access to these services on the outside and receive them in their child’s school, it enables the team to understand the complex mental health issues and thus guide treatment at a level that surpasses what a typical school can do. All members of the team can get information on the medical, therapeutic and educational aspects of each student, which is needed when our students are in crisis or demonstrating behaviors that are complex. Medication management can be more effective as the doctor is there to see how the medication is working. We are extremely fortunate to have the expertise of Dr. Owens who is a highly skilled psychiatrist with an expertise in psychopharmacology. He is a hands-on doctor, who contacts families, engages with students, provides staff training and gives input to staff on an ongoing basis. As our children do not only have psychiatric issues during the school day, the League School has a 24-hour hot-line, and the doctors are always available to provide medical and psychiatric assistance on call.” You really do have an outstanding staff at the League School. “Yes, and I’m so blessed to work alongside  with them.”

What do you envision for the future of The League School? “The League School provides a very needed and specialized instructional model for the underserved community. Like many other non-public schools, insufficient funding for small non-public schools and the impact of COVID has created significant financial hardships for us. There continues to be a need for our program city-wide, which has been further highlighted during the pandemic. The League School is part of a larger agency, The League Education and Treatment Center (LETC), which provides services to over 500 preschoolers, school age students and adults. LETC employs over 300 staff members across preschool, school-age and adult programs. The impact of COVID, which has especially impacted our adult programs, has created many challenges, however, we are continually working to handle these obstacles while maintaining the integrity of our unique program. 

March 1 starts Women’s History Month. What is something you would like to share with our readers about your drive and passion that brought you to where you are today. “The League School is a relatively small program, which requires a great deal of attention and a lot of hard work! Sometimes, however, your small dreams can yield large rewards. Despite having only between 110-120 students each year, I know that my on-going work has improved the lives of many hundreds of students and their families. When I run into colleagues at conferences and professional events, I am constantly reminded of the impact the unique training we provided had on their impact in the field.  The concept of what students with these disabilities can achieve has become limitless, and I know that the work of the League School has had a major part in that. While a person’s impact may seem small in numbers, it can be large in accomplishments, both by helping other professionals develop the passion and skills that you exude and by letting the students know how much they are valued and respected. Almost all of my professional life has been spent working with this population in this small but wonderful program, and the biggest thing I take away is the gift that they have given me.” It sounds to me that the League School is the best kept secret out there.

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