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Multisensory Gym for Children with Special Needs Hitting the Road

SCHENECTADY — A local preschool program has teamed up with CDTA and Proctors to bring a multi-sensory experience directly to local children on the Autism spectrum.

Thanks to the donation of a bus from CDTA, the Spotted Zebra Learning Center in Colonie will be packing up its new sensory gymnasium, the Bizzy Beez Activity Center, and hitting the road.

The Bizzy Beez — an indoor, multi-sensory environment for kids of all ages to move, touch and swing their way through different settings — was designed to enhance the development of a child's fine/gross motor skills, creativity, self-esteem, social development and cognitive development. It comes equipped with games, toys, light tables and furniture.

It made its first "traveling" debut Sunday at Proctors in Schenectady, in association with a matinee performance of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "The King and I."

Proctors had approached the Spotted Zebra about a partnership through independent promoter Jim Anderson, and plans to work with the center on more family entertainment opportunities in the 2018–2019 season. The free sensory gyms will open one hour before show time and continue to provide support throughout the performance.

"We're so proud and excited to be able to offer this opportunity to the families of the Capital Region," said Heather Rutski, audience development and retention specialist for Proctors. "Our goal is always to serve the entire community, and having the Bizzy Beez Activity Center visit us on site just feels right."

The gyms are staffed by Spotted Zebra specialists, and offer children a personalized level of stimulation, allowing the entire family to participate in and enjoy public performances and events.

"This gift from CDTA is a godsend," said Spotted Zebra founder Sheri Townsend. "We're now able to serve even more families, and all children are welcome at the traveling centers. Proctors has a real commitment to families, and we're so glad to start this journey with them, by bringing Bizzy Beez to State Street."

Originally Published on TimesUnion.com on May 7, 2018. Read the Article Here

New apartment complex combines housing and services to young adults with autism

Parents who have children with Autism have been making plans for their sons or daughters their entire lives. But a meeting today in Cohoes is so they can learn more about helping their soon-to-be young adults with Autism - like 19-year-old Matthew Oill - live independently.

"I do think it's an option, an option for him," says Steve Oill, of Glenville.

In the next 18-24 months, an empty lot between Ontario Street and Sargent Avenue in Cohoes will become 68 units of living space. The first floor, however, will house job training and placement offices, a physician to meet the needs of people on the spectrum and life skills coaches.

"All the services we need to be a productive part of this community will be in one place," explains Sheri Townsend of the Spotted Zebra, one of the partners working to make Mosaic Village a reality.

Rent will start at $600 per month and the hope is it will become an integrated community. Though the target tenant is Autistic young adults who have aged out of school and whose needs are changing.

"We need to have other options as they transition to adult hood."

Life-changing for those on the Spectrum and the people who love them.

"Every parent's dream is that your children can move out of the house and have a happy and successful life," adds Oill.

Originally Published on WNYT.com on September 28, 2016 06:22 PM. Read the Article Here

Farsightedness Associated With Literacy Problems in Preschoolers

Many young children have some degree of farsightedness—an ability to see objects far away more clearly than objects that are close up. Health providers are divided on whether moderate farsightedness even requires correction, with some arguing that children are able to compensate for moderate levels of distortion.

But a recent study found that children ages 4 to 5 with moderate farsightedness scored significantly worse on a test of preschool literacy—raising the question of whether eyeglasses might help make a difference. The research was funded by the National Eye Institute, a part of the National Institutes of Health.

Degrees of hyperopia, the medical term for farsightedness, are measured in positive diopters. Health practitioners generally agree that mild cases don't need correction because children often outgrow it, but a child with hyperopia over +6 diopters should be considered for glasses. Farsightedness is common in young children; a different NIH study found that about 21 percent of preschoolers have some degree of farsightedness, compared to 4 percent of preschoolers who are nearsighted, and 10 percent who have astigmatism, or an irregular curvature of the eye.

In the study "Uncorrected Hyperopia and Preschool Early Literacy," published online Jan. 27 in the journal Ophthalmology, researchers focused on farsighted children in the group where the recommendation for correction is not as clear-cut. The study looked at about 500 children, half of whom had normal vision and half of whom had +3 to +6 diopters of hyperopia.

The children were all given the Test of Preschool Early Literacy, which measures children's knowledge of print, vocabulary, and phonological awareness. The farsighted children scored lower than their peers with normal vision in all three parts of the test, but the largest gap was found in the print knowledge section, which tests children's ability to identify letters or words, as well as their ability to identify the sounds that letters make.

Moderate Hyperopia Should Prompt Literacy Evaluation

The study also found a range of ability among the farsighted children. The children who performed the worst on the test were at the higher end of the moderately farsighted range, at +4 to +6 diopters of hyperopia. The children who struggled the most also had problems with depth perception and binocular vision. The researchers hypothesized that farsighted children may be seeing intermittently blurry text, making it hard to learn the association between letters and the sounds they make. Other studies have shown a connection between farsightedness and reading problems in older children.

The study's findings don't necessarily mean that every young child who is farsighted should get glasses, said Marjean Taylor Kulp, a professor of optometry at Ohio State University and the lead author of the study. More research is underway to compare farsighted children who wear glasses to farsighted children who do not, to see if a literacy gap remains. But educators and parents should be aware of reading problems that can crop up in farsighted children, particularly because children who are early poor readers have a high likelihood of continuing to struggle throughout school. Young children are unlikely to complain about vision problems, Kulp said.

"For those kids who have that moderate farsightnedness, we would suggest they have their early literacy assessed," she said.

Read the Original Article Here

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Spotted Zebra Learning Center Executive Director Sheri Townsend.

For Albany-native Sheri Townsend, autism was never an integral part of her life. However, that all changed when the nation’s fastest growing developmental disability hit home. After Sheri and husband Scott welcomed their twins Alex and Mackenzie in 2002; they learned at 18-months Alex was diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

The Townsends quickly recognized that autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that begins typically in early childhood and affects communication skills, social development, and behavior. They also learned from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 1 in 68 American children are on the autism spectrum. For the next year, the Townsend family was busy juggling Alex’s early-intervention services from the county and Sheri’s full-time role as the commissioner of Youth and Work Services for the city of Albany.

When Alex was ready for a more structured preschool program, Sheri and her husband looked for one with the flexibility to keep the twins together and a schedule to match their working family’s hours. Unfortunately, most programs were only five hours long, without before and after-care capacity, and none were designed to handle both regular and special needs children in an inclusive setting. Frustrated to be unable to find what was best for her children, Sheri realized the solution was in her hands.

“Certainly with twins I wanted both of my children to be together at the same location. I couldn’t imagine leaving every day at 12:30 to take him to a babysitter. Part of my work was creating new programs for youth, and I asked my husband if we could create our own program. If Alex was in an environment more than a few hours a day, would he overcome his challenges that much faster? So we created a preschool to serve typically developing children and those with special needs,” explains Sheri.

In September 2005 Sheri started Spotted Zebra Learning Center, a small preschool with two classrooms and a teaching staff of 10 on Kross Keys Drive in Albany, NY. Alex and Mackenzie were among her center’s first students, creating the balanced ratio that Sheri couldn’t find elsewhere. Scott took time away from his architecture company to help design the preschool and maximize the leased 4,200-square foot space. Just six months later, Sheri made the decision to leave her job and bring her management skills to Spotted Zebra on a full-time basis.

“The preschool was really starting to grow and my heart was here. I felt I had so much to give here,” recounts Sheri. “In that time frame, we were able to open up a third classroom. Each classroom has the same structure with up to 12-14 children in each room and three staff, including a special education teacher, an early childhood education co-teacher, and a teaching assistant.”

The classroom ratio of adults to students was far lower than the maximums set by New York State, and functioned by design to create an environment of support where every child could reach their goals. Spotted Zebra also differed from the competition in their on-site support staff of occupational, physical, and speech therapists to work with students who require additional interventions. Sheri’s experience in grants management and facility licensing was critical to the center’s success in starting up and surviving the first few years. With Sheri’s guidance, Spotted Zebra met high standards to achieve licensure both from the NYS Department of Education as a special education program and the NYS Department of Children and Family Services as a preschool facility. Spotted Zebra’s licensed psychologist and therapists are able to travel to homes and preschools to evaluate a child and provide parents with immediate feedback.

In addition to offering unparalleled services on-site, Spotted Zebra grew to 36 children in 2008 by meeting a critical need for working families with hours from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., every day of the week, 50 weeks a year. The center continued to grow with each year, even adding a kindergarten classroom when Alex and Mackenzie were five. Adding the kindergarten class was a huge success for Sheri’s business and her children.

“By the time Alex left Spotted Zebra, he was totally declassified for services and ready to enter a traditional classroom setting,” explains Sheri. “There was the question when Alex and Mackenzie left for first grade if I would stay with the business, but I realized that the center offers so much hope to families and it was important to me to continue. We had a seven-year lease and in 2011 we started to look for new space to allow for expanding the business.”

When the property owners of their leased-location agreed to sell Spotted Zebra two acres of land to expand their existing building, Sheri developed plans with Scott for a 9,000-square foot preschool with all the space the teachers and students could imagine. But staying put was surprisingly difficult after a neighboring company filed an Article 78 to object to their planned project, and delays and legal fees started mounting up. The obstacles Sheri encountered in trying to expand at the original site ultimately led to an even more suitable solution. Sheri finally withdrew the expansion plans in July 2013 after seeing a 12,000-square foot building on Computer Drive East in Albany that seemed ideal --- in almost every way.

“At the time, the building was listed for a million dollars and that had not been in our budget. The additional personal funds we had planned for the expansion had been spent on legal fees. With renovations, the final price tag totaled 1.6 million dollars. Thankfully we had fabulous partners who stuck with us,” says Sheri. “You dream about having a banking partner who really knows you. Throughout this whole process, our bank was really behind us. First Niagara Bank brought in the 504 program and it just all clicked and fell into place. We were able to afford our dream.”

With the help of an SBA-backed 504 loan through First Niagara and ESCDC, Spotted Zebra was able to purchase the building in 2014 and transform the large complex into a 21st century preschool with five classrooms, individual therapy rooms, indoor playroom, and administrative offices. Scott’s knowledge of building codes and architectural skills resulted in a creative environment where children can move, learn and play that was on time and on budget.

Sheri’s new location offers parents a wider range of opportunities for their children than before. The larger space enabled Sheri to add two “drop-in” style programs that offer Spotted Zebra-level services on a part-time basis. The Bizzy Beez Activity Center offers an indoor, multi-sensory environment with the flexibility to be used for Saturday community events, organizations for adults needing therapies, and children’s birthday parties. The Speckled Zebra Toddler Room is a play-based program for two and three-year olds offered three times a week. The center added “push-in” services where Spotted Zebra special education teachers provide part-time services to other preschools. Spotted Zebra’s latest innovation is a training series for other preschool providers and daycares on inclusivity, playing with a purpose, and challenging behaviors.

Ten years after starting Spotted Zebra, Sheri’s team of 50 employees delivers quality, individualized instruction for over 200 students from across the Capital Region. Sheri still knows each child by name and works constantly, even scheduling herself in the rotation as a teaching assistant when coverage is needed. Sheri measures the success of her business in the growth of each child who walks through the doors.

“To see the kids come here and grow is so rewarding for me. It means a lot when I can say as a provider to a parent that I’ve been in their shoes and it’s sincere. I trust a lot to our teachers and together we create a positive team environment for children. We have families who bring all their children here, whether or not they have a special need,” says Sheri.

Originally published on the U.S. Small Business Administration, Read the Article Here.