Johnson County Montessori School & North Star Academy: A special place of inclusion and learning


GoodLife’s 40-year partnership with the University of Kansas (KU) has developed a number of nationally regarded service models including North Star Academy (NSA), a school for children with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD). Today we visit with Kristen Kunze, Executive Director of Children’s Services for GoodLife, and Pam Neidert, Assistant Professor for KU’s Applied Behavioral Science department, to learn about our unique collaboration.

Kristen, tell us how NSA serves the GoodLife population? 
Sure! I serve as the administrator for the North Star Child Development Center, which is home to two programs: the North Star Academy,  an early intensive behavioral intervention program serving children with I/DD (primarily autism) ages 2.5-12 years old; and the Johnson County Montessori School (JCMS), a preschool and childcare center for typically developing children ages 2.5 years to kindergarten. JCMS was founded by GoodLife in 1965 and merged with NSA just a few years ago to form a beautifully unique place for children to grow, if I do say so myself!

Pam, how does KU’s Applied Behavioral Science department fit in? 
At North Star Academy, the Board Certified Behavioral Analysts (BCBA) are typically my most-senior KU graduate students. They spend time at NSA to observe children with I/DD in a classroom setting to practice what they’re learning at KU. This partnership is an amazing training opportunity for my students to learn from real-world challenges like differing teaching philosophies and children with varying degrees of learning. At North Star Academy, the teacher-student ratio is 1:1, and each teacher is a certified Registered Behavioral Technician (RBT), many of whom were undergraduate students within my department at KU. There have also been instances where teachers from JCMS have taken classes at KU to get additional training and are now teaching within the NSA program. We’re really trying to develop a training pipeline that can go bi-directionally between GoodLife and KU, and it’s exciting to watch. 

How does technology play an important role? 
[Kristen] We have iLink technology within all classrooms and common areas. This allows the BCBAs to monitor our kids and RBTs in different situations to make sure staff is hitting goals, using reinforcement correctly, and to observe and learn from interactions between both groups of kids. The BCBAs can get a more authentic and accurate picture of how a child is functioning and provide learning opportunities and constructive feedback for RBTs to improve practices. 

[Pam] So true, Kristen. I’d like to add one other advantage: not many organizations have access to this type of technology, and it really allows us to be a leader in research. 

Pam, why is it important to merge both NSA and JCMS under one roof?
The main reason to have both programs in the same building is so that we can be an inclusionary site for all kids. Our NSA kiddos fall within a wide range of I/DD. For the ones that don’t need as much support, we can give them remedial education within the context of being alongside same-aged peers for several hours of the learning day. For those that have yet to develop skills like eye contact or appropriate social behaviors, spending time with same-aged peers helps to speed that learning up. On the other hand, Montessori teachers may see behaviors displayed with their students and can collaborate with NSA’s BCBAs to find a successful solution. Across the board, the integration teaches compassion, understanding, and healthy development for all kids involved. 

Kristen, what sets this collaboration apart? 
NSA’s relationship with KU provides us with access to highly-trained staff, which increases the overall level of care we give to our students. We serve as a research and training site, which also benefits those that are studying to be the next generation of caregivers. Also, the integration model between NSA students with I/DD and typically developing students at JCMS is uncommon in a clinical I/DD setting. It naturally embeds unique and critical social opportunities that teach inclusivity and understanding. 

Pam, same question to you!
Like Kristen mentioned, the integrated, full-inclusion model for the children makes us unique. For kids with I/DD, and particularly those with autism, it’s so important to be around typically developing peers to learn language, behaviors, and social skills. Without that, inclusivity and tolerance are limited and, in my opinion, can contribute to bullying. We’re exposing children at a young age to peers that are different than they are–and these are invaluable opportunities that are not often offered in our state and country. Secondly, GoodLife is partnering with students that are learning cutting-edge practices in the field of caring for those with I/DD, and practicing those skills within a GoodLife setting. Potentially (and ideally) these same highly-trained students will work for GoodLife in the future. The organization is literally changing our industry for the better. Everyone benefits. 

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