When Diana Kon was a teacher at the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School (O-School), her favorite part of each day was lunchtime.
“This was when I sat with my students at a table in the dining room and we ate family-style meals together on proper dishes,” she recalls. “It was never any kind of cafeteria experience.”
Today, Kon serves as executive director at the O-School, an internationally recognized therapeutic school for children with special needs in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. She says this mealtime experience is more than a treasured memory — it’s an example of what makes the O-School such a special place for students.
“Within our school, there is a seamless experience for our students to establish relationships with teachers, with therapists, with other students and adults,” Kon says. “We know when our students learn how to navigate the complexities of relationships, this will make a difference for them in their lives.”
The understanding of the nuances of relationships is an important part of the education for students at O-School, many of whom have an autism spectrum disorder, psychiatric diagnosis or have spent time in a psychiatric hospital.
“Our students are so bright, and we know that if we have a system, they pick up on that very quickly. We want to help them use working relationships so they can learn to navigate other relationships in their lives,” Kon explains. For instance, when a student experiences a conflict with a future classmate or even a future professor, the student needs relationship tools to navigate that tough relationship, rather than quitting.
A therapeutic environment
Relationship-building embodies “therapeutic milieu,” a concept developed during the history of the O-School, which was founded in 1915 and has grown to become one of the most highly regarded therapeutic schools in the world. Based on the idea that an individual’s physical surroundings affect self-perception and behavior, therapeutic milieu is embraced by all faculty, administrators and staff at the O-School — including the kitchen staff who serve family-style meals, Kon says.
“This means that everybody is part of the setting and involved in building an ecosystem where we are working together and paying attention to every detail of our students’ experiences,” she says. “It’s not exclusive to the classroom or therapy office, but extends to the receptionist who greets us in the morning, to those who take great pride in caring for the school and making sure the students are safe.”
At the heart of the O-School’s therapeutic milieu are people who care enough to establish relationships.
“At a time when things are digitized and simplified and rapport is interchangeable with relationships, it’s important to have a place where true relationships are at the core of every interaction, academic or emotional,” she says. As respect underscores all connections at the O-School, from the top down, everyone is known by their first name.
Deeper focus on Chicago families
The O-School is in the midst of reconfiguring its offerings by expanding its day school programming and community-based supportive services. The move away from residential programming will position the O-School to provide much-needed focused support for Chicago families.
The O-School is substantially expanding its therapeutic day school enrollment for students who live in and around Chicago and is ready to meet the needs of elementary, middle and high school students with accredited academic programs intertwined with supportive and nurturing therapies.
“Families come to us when their students have been in a more traditional educational setting and found their child is struggling with anxiety and so overwhelmed that consistent attendance is an issue,” Kon says. “They may have required psychiatric help, medications and hospitalization. The parents are worried for the emotional or physical safety of their children.”
For most students, the O-School is not their first stop, Kon explains. “Parents and students have often been through the wringer,” she says, adding that parents have become accustomed to getting calls from their child’s previous school “to talk about what happened today, and what’s wrong with their child. You can see the weight on their shoulders,” she says.
“We give parents the opportunity to recalibrate and have positive experiences with our school so they can enjoy being their child’s parent again and take pride in that,” Kon says. “They’ve had to be the teacher, therapist and advocate, and being able to be just mom and dad is something they haven’t had the opportunity to do.”
Rising to support increased need
Never before has there been such a need for the academic and therapeutic services that the O-School provides. The O-School is prepared to support families through what Kon calls “the looming mental health crisis” as families cope with pandemic-related fallout.
“We know that the full impact of the pandemic is yet to be realized. For students at certain developmental stages, their experiences may have cost them more than is immediately evident and as time goes by, the full impact is something we need to face,” Kon says. Isolation and two-dimensional connections have robbed students of more traditional opportunities for growth, she adds.
“When my son was in high school, he spent a lot of time on the basketball court and learned and gained things I could never teach him — far beyond the game of basketball,” she shares. “We are all trying to understand the differences between transactional and relational experiences, and this is nuanced and can’t be accomplished by students in an exclusively two-dimensional way.”
Figuring out the rhythm of how to be together again is something the O-School is committed to helping its community achieve.
Meeting mental health and academic needs
Because the stigma surrounding mental health concerns is still so pervasive, children and young adults typically struggle to have mental health needs met in a traditional school environment.
Rather than dilute the educational experience for students with special needs, the O-School philosophy helps children rise to their successes, now and in their future.
“It’s almost that traditional schools believe you can be a competent student or get your mental health needs met, but not both,” Kon says. “At the O-School, we see these needs as intertwined. We don’t believe you must sacrifice intellectual growth, even if a child’s social-emotional needs are significant. We work to understand where each child is and then build a path forward, with the right supports, to access a robust curriculum, rather than dialing the curriculum back.”
At the O-School, students and their parents can once again reach for dreams they have abandoned, Kon says.
“We don’t want to reinforce that you have to pick one or the other. We take the lid off of that thinking,” she says. “It might take longer and it definitely won’t be easy, but they’re not mutually exclusive.”
Learn more about the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at oschool.org.