Special program in New Hartford helps kids achieve

NEW HARTFORD -- The Oak Hill School is an enclave, of sorts, because it’s a school for special needs students that tucked within a public school – The Ann Antolini School in New Hartford.  It’s a situation that allows students like Lanaya Viarengo to befriend, and learn from, a wider range of students.

Lanaya’s mother, Kirsten, said the interaction, and attention she gets from the students and staff at Oak Hill, has been invaluable.

“For her not even being able to tell you what her name was four years ago to her being able to tell you and spelling her name, it brings a smile to my face every time I see it,” she said.

Lanaya was born with 2Q37 Deletion Syndrome.  Kirsten said it affects “everything,” from speech, to hearing, to Lanaya’s growth and development.  She needed a lot of help to learn how to communicate, and that’s where Oak Hill’s Barbara Rankin and her staff come in.  Rankin has been teaching special needs students at Oak Hill for 36 years and counting, and she does so by employing the school’s simple philosophy – that students are unique, and their teaching should reflect that.

“Any student, regardless of whether they have a disability that affects them, is an individual,” Rankin said, “The important thing is everyone has a voice.”

Lanaya was non-verbal when she came to Oak Hill, as many of Rankin’s students are.  Rankin said she starts those students out by giving them her voice, by recording short messages on a device that allows the students to play them back with the touch of a button.

“I’ve seen so many kids start with an augmented system that develop speech because of it,” she said.  “It’s not a replacement, it’s a bridge.”

Rankin also discovered early on that Lanaya had a flair for music, something Kirsten saw as well.

“I knew she was some kind of musically inclined, because before she could speak, she could sing a song,”  she said.  Rankin then started using music to teach Lanaya whenever possible, by using songs to help words and concepts stick in Lanaya’s head.   Rankin said she’s seen that kind of connection in other students as well.

“It’s a different pathway.  Sometimes I’ve found students who don’t speak will sing,” Rankin said.

The results were impressive.

“The first thing she did was really start singing little bits of songs during our music group,” Rankin said.  Now, Lanaya can interact with other students at Oak Hill and the Ann Antolini School, as well as hold a conversation with her mom.

“She came home one day and was like, ‘Hi Mommy, how was your day’ and I was just like, ‘Oh my God, Lanaya, did you really just say that?’  …  I cried,“ Kirsten said.

Rankin said students’ confidence tend to blossom alongside their communication skills.

“I think if you don’t speak and you don’t speak for a long time, you know, your whole life so far, you don’t realize the power of it.”

Kirsten agrees.

“[Lanaya] can do anything, and I can’t wait to see what she does.”