Parents whose kids attend the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School often remark how good it feels to know their children have finally found friends. At the O-School, an internationally regarded therapeutic day school in Chicago, a supportive setting helps bright, creative students with special needs and mental health challenges thrive by building strong connections — with peers, faculty and staff.
“What’s unique about the O-School is our holistic approach balancing mental health and academics. It’s a strong approach that relies on people getting to know each other in a way that a big school doesn’t allow,” says Michelle Zarrilli, who has worked at the O-School for 24 years and has been principal since 2015.
For students with significant social-emotional challenges, the O-School is much more than a place to make friends, says Zarrilli. It’s a place where students can work through their challenges, achieve academic goals and thrive.
“When students don’t feel connected to their school setting or friends, or even at home with their family, it can become an overwhelming experience and that can prevent them from succeeding,” Zarrilli says. “The emotional challenges they face are so significant that accessing the world around them starts to feel impossible. We work to help students who are experiencing that disconnect learn to connect, even if they don’t know how. Desire, not necessarily ability, is the key ingredient to a successful experience at the O-School.”
A day in the life
At the start of each day, elementary, middle and high school students pull up to the O-School’s yellow door to be welcomed by an entire committee of staff, from administrators like Zarrilli and the director of therapy, to a smiling receptionist, to teachers and individual therapists. “We welcome them and walk them in to start their day in their home base, what we call base class,” Zarrilli says.
These clusters of nine to 10 students plus special education teachers form cohesive groups and, after 30 minutes of connective discussions and activities, the students attend passing periods of different subjects.
“We offer an ambitious curriculum, including fine arts, music, PE and foreign language programs, all paired with appropriate supports, allowing students to actively engage in learning while also learning to take risks as a student,” Zarrilli says. Many of our students arrive having built their educational identities around their failures due to their mental health challenges. We help them rebuild it around their strengths and success, allowing them to become life-long learners. As a result, we have high outcomes. Close to 90% of our students go on to higher education.”
At lunchtime, base class groups reconnect over lunch, which is served family style from the on-site scratch kitchen. They share experiences from their mornings at circular tables designed for conversation and socialization. “Lunches at the O-School are about sharing thoughts and ideas with friends. They are about enjoying a home cooked meal. Their teachers shepherd them through these social experiences, which are as important as science and social studies,” Zarrilli says.
Lunch is followed by academic support with base class, where students go through their assignments, plan for their afternoons and strengthen executive functioning. Here, they are with people who know them well, and it’s a safe space for sharing and helping each other get through the second half of the day successfully, Zarrilli says.
Each student takes part in twice-weekly individual therapy sessions as well as group therapy. Family therapy and support is also integral to each student’s experience. Additionally, the O-School offers a broad range of co-curriculars, including student council, a school newspaper, school dances and more, giving students a traditional school experience in a therapeutic setting.
A robust student work program helps even the youngest students learn important real-world skills like how to apply for a job, how to interview, respond to performance feedback and show up for work, even when they don’t feel like it. “This is a great practice ground for all of that,” Zarrilli explains. “Students have responsibility for watering plants, sorting and delivering mail within the school, decorating for the seasons, setting up equipment for PE, even working in the kitchen.”
“When we are doing, we feel better, and this work gives students a sense of purpose. It helps build identity within the community and it’s skill-building, too,” Zarrilli says.
A place for your child
If your child is struggling at your neighborhood school, despite having an IEP in place, the O-School may be a more appropriate academic option. “If you’re at a point where your child is missing school, is overwhelmed and can’t face even the basic tasks, or if their challenges impact the ability of your family to remain connected and healthy, considering the O-School is worthwhile,” Zarrilli says. If your child attends a private school and does not have an IEP, the O-School will help create an Individual Academic Plan.
“We make significant gains with younger students with autism, depression and anxiety,” Zarrilli says, adding that transitioning to the O-School as a younger student allows more time for students to grow and develop.
And, when students make strides at the O-School, they can more successfully transition back to their home school. “Even upon admission, we talk with the student about what they want to happen next and for many, that’s transitioning back to their local public school. They may need to build skills in a smaller and less stimulating setting for a period of time in order to facilitate a transition back to their community school,” says Zarrilli.
When students do graduate from the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, they are honored in individual ceremonies before they move on to college and career. Often, their parents share their thoughts about the experiences that brought them to that point in time — and what they say underscores the profound effect of a supportive therapeutic day school.
“A very common theme we hear from parents is that the O-School saved their child’s life,” Zarrilli says. “It’s an honor to be able to see students gain confidence and independence. I’m confident when I say that we help students make change for real.”
Learn more about the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood at oschool.org.