When you’re running an organization that provides educational and social services, especially to populations with special needs, it’s pretty much essential these days to be able to say that your work employs your field’s “best practices” and that its approaches are solidly evidence-based. Not only does such a demonstrated claim build trust and confidence with your clients, but it also attracts crucial grant funding.
Some organizations in emerging fields have borne an extra burden: being the ones who actually had to compile the evidence, because little was known or tested when they started out. That was the challenge faced by Jamey Wolff and Susan Buckler when they co-founded a tiny school in the basement of the Dutch Reformed Church in Woodstock in 1976, originally called the Children’s Annex. Today the whole region knows it as the Center for Spectrum Services, and will be marking its 45th anniversary with a gala “Sapphire Celebration” at the Chateau in Kingston Saturday, June 4 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. There’s a silent auction already taking bids online at https://secure.qgiv.com/event/sapcel/items. (For tickets and other information, see https://centerforspectrumservices.org.)
Today, the Center for Spectrum Services (CSS) is widely recognized as a pioneer in the development of educational supports for children with autism spectrum disorder. Many of the approaches honed by Wolff, Buckler and their staff have been adopted statewide and beyond as the gold standard for working with autistic kids. They have trained thousands of teachers and produced widely used tools, including an influential documentary about three high-functioning “aspie” youths titled The Asperger’s Difference. With two schools — one in Kingston with 130 students aged 3 to 12 and one in Ellenville with 32 students aged 3 to 8 — CSS now serves children from 35 school districts in six Hudson Valley counties.
But it was a very different world when they first opened the Children’s Annex, driven by a strong sense that kids on the spectrum weren’t getting the individualized services they needed. “This was way before there was a sophisticated diagnosis for autism. Understanding autism was at its infancy, and the information that was there was false,” Wolff recalls, noting that the revered Dr. Bruno Bettelheim’s recommended solution for the problem was a “parentectomy. Only the most severe forms were even diagnosed.”
“I did not have much of an education about what autism was,” says Buckler, although she received her Masters in Education at Teachers’ College at Columbia University. Wolff had a similar experience when she obtained her Masters in Educational Psychology with a concentration in Special Education at NYU.
Both women started their Special Ed careers in the New York City public schools, and both soon found themselves “dissatisfied” and “underwhelmed” with the resources being devoted to kids with special needs. Public revelations of the horrific conditions at the Willowbrook School in Staten Island in 1972 had spurred a movement by New York State to deinstitutionalize and “put all kids in resource room settings,” Wolff recounts. “There were all these kids in public schools with basically no support.”
By the mid-70s, both of the CSS founders had moved to Woodstock, though they had not yet met. Wolff was running a batik clothing business, and had a revelation one day while down in a basement dyeing “100 onesies: I realized how much I missed teaching.” So, she took a position with the Campus School at SUNY New Paltz, which she characterizes as “the best of the lot” at the time, and began saving up money to start her own school.
Buckler was also working in a public school since moving upstate, all too aware that there were “too many children with needs not being met.” One day she read an advertisement in the Woodstock Times, where Wolff was seeking to identify parents who might want to get behind a startup school program for kids who needed individualized educational programming. “We met for tea and decided that we would do it together,” Wolff says.
The first year, they had only two students and charged no tuition, relying on Buckler’s “wedding money” and Wolff’s savings and a loan from her parents. “It was really a grassroots beginning. We raised money through bake sales and car washes,” Buckler says. The Children’s Annex received its state charter in 1977 and not-for-profit status in 1978, and began to contract with public schools. But it wasn’t until they obtained CETA funding during the last years of the Carter administration that either of them was able to draw a salary.
In its original conception, the Children’s Annex was intended to admit children with all sorts of developmental and learning issues. “We also served children who were classified as emotionally disturbed or had multiple disabilities,” Wolff says. But by Year Two, with five kids enrolled, the two teachers had to get up to speed on how to help one child who was “more classically autistic — spinning things, nonverbal” and another with “a dramatic onset of autism. She had been developing and talking normally, but then lost language. We were overwhelmed with concern about how we could continue to educate her, continue working with these parents on their journey.”
That was the beginning of a tighter focus on autism for the Annex, as the founders set out to experiment with new approaches and “become more of a referral source. We became a leader in New York State in how to teach children with autism.” Wolff and Buckler, and later other staff members, got busy organizing a regional network of parents called the Hudson Valley Autism Society, partnering with other institutions and agencies and serving on the Hudson Alliance for Special Needs, the New York State Task Force on Autism and the Department of Health Advisory Panel on Autism. The name change to the Center for Spectrum Services came in 2009.
From the beginning, word got out and the program grew, doubling in size every year in its early decades and changing locations several times, moving to the former Sophie Finn Elementary School in Kingston in 1983 and founding the satellite school in Ellenville that same year. In 1987 they built their own permanent 20,000-square-foot home at 70 Kukuk Lane in the Town of Ulster, and in 1994 the Ellenville school got its own new building at 4 Yankee Place. Playgrounds designed specifically for kids with autism were built at both schools in 2015, and a water spray park was added to the Kingston facility in 2019.
By the mid-90s, says Wolff, they had a “sizable staff,” including speech pathologists, social workers and administrative assistants in addition to Special Ed teachers. “Most of our administrative team have been with us for over 30 years. We have department heads who really know their stuff.” This level of expertise and dedication is making the transition “pretty seamless” as Wolff begins her retirement. Buckler recently took over her role as executive director, and Charlotte Mennona was hired as the new program director. “A well-run program can handle anybody leaving, and our collaboration is so strong,” Wolff avers.
Like all educational institutions, CSS had to struggle and adapt to cope with the closures mandated during the pandemic, but the situation was particularly difficult for “kids who need one-to-one instruction,” according to Wolff. CSS is not a residential school, so students have to go back to their homes on a daily basis. Still, she says, “COVID gave us gifts. With every challenge there are opportunities. We will never stop using Zoom for training remotely and staff meetings.”
The Sapphire Celebration planned for Saturday June 4 will pay tribute to Wolff and Buckler’s impressive accomplishments, and a special endowment fund in their honor has been launched. Emceed by Ulster Savings Bank CEO Bill Calderara, the big event will feature Sawyer Motors owner Bob Siracusano as live auctioneer, following the cocktail hour and dinner. Whether you can attend or not, you can still show your support for this priceless community resource by making a donation or registering to bid in the silent auction. All the details can be found at https://centerforspectrumservices.org.