It’s a small school with fewer than 100 students, but for the last 60 years, Woodward Children’s Center has been a beacon of hope for families with emotionally disturbed and autistic school-aged children. The school, located at 201 West Merrick Rd. in Freeport was established in 1957 as the Berman School, a school for emotional disturbed children. Gertrude Berman, started the school as means to help emotionally disturbed students.
Berman was a New York City schoolteacher from Freeport. Her interests to help students was recognized by a number of parents from the community who consulted with her about their troubled children. Wanting to address Long Island parents’ needs, Berman left the New York City schools and opened the school in Freeport. Practically 60 school years later, the school continues to provide students and parents with attention and care.
George Singfield, an educator who worked alongside Berman since the 1960s says, during the time the school opened, there were scarce resources available for parents with special needs children. After seeing the support and education Berman was providing for families in need, he knew working alongside her was where he needed to be as an educator. Singfield continues to work with Woodward as a member of its board of directors.
“More and more parents started coming to her [Gertrude],” Singfield said. “During the time there were not that many schools who would take youngsters with disabilities; particularly children with serious emotional disabilities.”
At Woodward, the students are given the same type of education as the typical school districts but focuses on the social and emotional support in a five to one teacher-student ratio. Most of the children that attend are referrals from the school district, but not just Freeport, other neighboring communities too.
“We bring a family sense of security here,” Greg Ingino executive director of the Woodward Children’s Center said.
Ingino has been an educator for over 30 years and has spent a bulk of the years dedicated to the Woodward Children’s Center’s mission — providing a safe and nurturing environment where children can cope and receive a full education.
Students from all over Long Island and sometimes from the five boroughs commute to Freeport for the specialized education. Though typical English and math classes are taught, students can also take art, music and even culinary classes. The school is equipped with the latest in technology — smart boards, computers and tablets.
Depending on the student’s interests, students have the option of taking ceramics, wood shop, dance, and sewing or even weight training classes. Ingino says in providing an eclectic collection of classes they are able to help students tap into their personal interests, while still keeping an emphasis on schoolwork and state requirements.
Some students in their junior or senior year are also given the opportunity to participate in a work-study program that allows them to start working or interning in preparation to join the workforce at graduation.
The school also offers occupational therapy for students in need of physical skills to carry out daily life and has an occupational therapist onsite to provide support. Further, students who have speech and language disorders are provided with individual or group speech-language therapy.
“These kids have a special place in my heart,” said Danielle Colucci, principal of Woodward Children’s Center. “I think it is a challenging group to work with, but when you reach them and you have success it’s a good feeling.”
Colucci says the students that come to Woodward usually come with a large case file, but the past is disregarded so he/she can start the classes with a clean slate on their first day of school.
“We get to know them and I think we do make a big difference in their lives,” Colucci said. “We’re their safe place, so we’re more than just a school for them.”
Alex Barrientos, originally from Freeport says though he graduated from Woodward in 2015, he still wishes he could go back to school. However, he didn’t always feel excited about school. Before attending Woodward didn’t take school seriously and often disrupted class with his jokes and antics. However, at 13, he was transferred from a program in Suffolk County to Woodward.
“I couldn’t handle larger classes and I wanted a lot of attention,” Barrientos said. “My family was worried because I got to the point I could get in serious trouble.”
Being at Woodward for Barrientos meant he had a unique opportunity to not only address is behavioral issues, but buckle down and hit the books— which he did. When it was time to graduate, he says he felt prepared to go to work and start focusing on his future. Now, 19, Barrientos, works at a local retail shop, in Freeport and planning new goals. He often frequents Woodward, a place he stills considers home.
“I was having behavior problems,” Barrientos said. “When I came here I really liked it and I’m glad it worked out for me. Now I’m just trying to do what is best in my adult life.”
Woodward is fully staff with social workers, clinicians, special education teachers and an administrative staff that provides support not only to the students but also to parents. For parents, sending their son or daughter to Woodward is their last hope that their child will get the education and attention desperately needed, according to Ingino.