Walk into just about any New York City public or private school classroom and you’re bound to experience a remarkable range of cultural and linguistic diversity. That kind of diversity can be a great strength, but for teachers who often have limited resources it can pose a challenge—and for children with learning and behavior difficulties, it can mean the difference between getting the services they need to be successful in school and getting lost in the system.
Thinking about ways to help those students is one of the things that occupies the long, busy days of Vincent C. Alfonso, Ph.D., professor and associate dean for academic affairs in the Graduate School of Education (GSE). An expert in the psycho-educational assessment of children with a specialty in learning disabilities, Alfonso teaches future professionals (school psychologists, teachers) how to recognize autism, language delays and other developmental disabilities and devise treatments for youngsters who struggle to succeed in the classroom and in life.
Early intervention is his mantra.
“Early identification is the best prevention we have,” said Alfonso, who has seen positive movement in federal and state laws in the last decade to protect children under the age of five. “It’s really not that different than evaluating early for cancer.”
A Brooklyn native from a Cuban-Italian family, Alfonso did his doctoral work at Hofstra University and started his professional life at a Long Island school district, assessing and counseling students with potential learning disabilities and consulting with parents. In some ways, his job came down to answering a seemingly simple question of his young charges, “Are they in good shape to go to and do well in school?”
Alfonso came to Fordham as an assistant professor in 1994 and went on to coordinate the school psychology programs for three years while also serving as executive director of the R.A. Hagin School Consultation and Early Childhood Centers, where he still acts as academic training coordinator. There are about 150 students in the school psychology program and a small subset are enrolled in a preschool psychology master’s program.
Associate dean for academic affairs since August 2005, Alfonso said he misses some of the perks of professorial life: working with graduate students on research projects, educating and training future professionals and representing Fordham in the field.
But the opportunity “to effect positive change” through the guidance and mentoring of young faculty is what swayed Alfonso to make the leap from faculty to administration.
“I think we really need to continue bridging the gap between science and practice,” he said.
Helping schools adopt new means of assessment is critical, as is community outreach and partnership, which Alfonso would like to see more of in his department, “so that the gap between the halls of academe and the halls of schools isn’t so great.”
He points to a recently created program between GSE and the Bronx Zoo that will offer a Master of Science degree in education and New York state initial teacher certification in adolescent science education. The program will focus on teaching methods, the psychology of adolescent development and learning, learning environments for adolescents, and teaching linguistically and culturally diverse adolescents, among other areas. (See the article, “GSE and Bronx Zoo Announce Master’s Degree Program”)
Alfonso is also proud of the 10-year-old relationship between the school psychology program in the Division of Psychological and Educational Services and eight Catholic elementary schools in the Bronx and Harlem, where Fordham school psychology graduate students provide psycho-educational services to young pupils. Although the New York City State Department of Education is responsible for evaluating students in both public and private schools, Alfonso said “there is a very long wait for children to be served” in the latter, which often simply do not have the resources to evaluate and accommodate children with learning and behavior difficulties.
One resource in the field is a book Alfonso co-authored that is considered a bible of sorts for evaluators. Essentials of Cross-Battery Assessment, Second Edition (Wiley, 2007) advocates employing multiple assessment tools and tailoring them to the individual’s particular difficulties, “rather than using one instrument,” Alfonso said. “It’s a method that colleagues and I have not devised but have tried to perfect.”
Although there may be no such thing as perfection in working with students with severe learning and behavior difficulties — or any students, for that matter — Alfonso can’t stress enough the unhealthy outcomes for a young person whose difficulties aren’t treated as early as possible. “Dropping out of school,” the most common response to ignored learning and behavior disabilities, “has a very large domino effect,” he said. Quality of life and life satisfaction will ultimately suffer, for that individual and for his or her family.
Which brings Alfonso back to the mantra of early intervention. Better late than never, but early is best of all.
“I don’t think there’s a point of no return, but the longer we wait—just as in medicine, whether you’re trying to stop smoking or drinking coffee—the harder it is to help people,” Alfonso said. “There isn’t a point of no return, but you’re going to have to work real hard.”
By Julie Bourbon