Janet Mino, a seemingly tireless special education teacher in New Jersey, is quick with smiles, hugs, and high-fives for the six young men with autism in her self-contained classroom at Newark’s John F. Kennedy High School.
The students in her class, and throughout the school that calls itself the city’s “best kept secret,” are used to a warm, supportive environment. All of the students have autism or multiple disabilities with cognitive impairments. But once those students reach the age of 21, they leave the school system for a fate that is sometimes unknown.
The PBS Series POV explores the world of Mino and her students in the documentary “Best Kept Secret,” which has its broadcast premiere at 10 p.m., Monday. (Check local listings for air times in your area.)
The students have different levels of support from their families. Some, like Quran Key, have two loving parents who are committed to their needs.
“First of all, I had to accept that Quran didn’t have the problem, I had the problem,” said Bradley Key at one point in the film. “Once I accepted him for being who he is, things got a lot easier.” However, Mino finds herself in conflict with Mr. Key, who is concerned about the focus on academics over basic life skills for his son.
Other students, like Robert, come from a chaotic background. Robert was homeschooled before enrolling in the high school, and his primary caregiver is an aunt who is a recovering drug addict. He often misses time at school and begins to regress.
Eighteen months before her students graduate, Mino starts investigating the placement options for them after school. Some programs offer some job training, but there is often little individual support. For some parents, issues such as transportation options make the difference between what programs are attainable to the graduating youth.
The film, much like Mino, walks a tightrope between the optimism of seeing students getting ready to embark on a new stage in their lives, and the concern that without guidance, these young lives will be spent in institutions or homebound.
“I have to be realistic about what’s out there,” Mino says in the film. “You have to just make a choice until something better comes out. You want everything to be the way it is in your classroom. But it’s not.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.