Christopher Lineman, a senior at Centennial School in this eastern Pennsylvania town, says he has loved cooking since he was 3 years old.
Throughout challenging times in his life, he has kept that love alive. Now 19, Christopher is on track to graduate from high school in 2017. After that, he wants to attend community college, work a stint in a restaurant kitchen, and maybe one day own a restaurant himself. He’s already getting experience in food preparation, splitting his day between Centennial and a nearby vocational program that offers culinary training.
Thinking about graduation and life on his own, Christopher allows that he is “a little nervous.” But, he added: “I’m also excited. Because I know I want to learn new things. There’s not a day that I would not want to learn something new. I love to learn. I love going to school.”
That mindset is far from what it was when he first arrived at Centennial as a rising 5th grader in 2007, brimming with anger.
Centennial, a lab school governed by Lehigh University’s College of Education, is tucked away in an industrial office park, less than a mile from Lehigh Valley International Airport. The school enrolls students with emotional disturbances or with autism who are placed there by one of 40 surrounding school districts.
Before class one school morning, some students gathered in Centennial’s cafeteria area for a snack of cinnamon toast, which they can buy with points earned for good behavior in class. The school’s philosophy is that appropriate behavior needs to be explicitly taught, and Centennial relies on positive-behavior supports rather than techniques such as seclusion or restraint.
The program is intensive. Enrollment is limited to no more than about 100 students, and districts pay nearly $18,000 of the school’s $44,000 annual tuition for the students they send. (The state picks up the rest.) The calm and structure of the average school day disguises the fact that Centennial does not get easy cases, says school director Michael George.
Christopher, for one, was no easy case. Physically and verbally aggressive toward teachers as well as family members, he struggled to cope with frustration, said Julie Fogt, the school’s psychologist.
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But he also opened himself up quickly to Centennial’s methods, Ms. Fogt said, and seemed to thrive with the structure. “He was a student who seemed to get on board faster than others,” she said.
The emotional volatility is what makes transition from school to the community particularly challenging for students with emotional disturbances, says Katie M. Herczeg, the career-development teacher at Centennial. “Emotional disturbance” exists as a disability category under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but not in the world outside of school.
“A lot of our students can present like typical adolescents, so you might not know they have a disability,” Ms. Herczeg said. “Their disability doesn’t surface until they are angry or frustrated, or having trouble dealing with a lot of different variables.”
And that’s when they end up losing jobs, or worse. Students with emotional disturbances are more likely than other students with disabilities to have had run-ins with the law, for example.
Teaching self-advocacy skills to this group of students is particularly important, Ms. Herczeg said. When Centennial students graduate, they have to be able to navigate education systems, job requirements, or social-service agencies all on their own.
By all accounts, Christopher is demonstrating that he’s ready to make that transition.
“He’s super enthusiastic,” said Shane Killeen, his culinary-arts instructor at the Career Institute of Technology, the vocational school he attends during half his school day. “Every day, he’s actively engaged with his teammates, and that’s nice to see.”
Christopher said he’s not ready to leave the protective embrace of Centennial quite yet.
“I strongly believe that I actually do need a little bit more practice,” he said. “But when I start getting the hang of everything, then I’ll be ready to actually go on to college and continue my education.”