The Winston Preparatory School, a nonsectarian school for students with learning disabilities, opened its doors Sept. 8 on the first floor of the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany.
It is using spaces that were once occupied by two Jewish institutions, the Brody Early Childhood Center and the Waldor Memorial Library.
The arrangement between the school and its landlord, the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, began 10 months ago. The New York-based Winston Prep was seeking a suitable location in New Jersey, and the federation was looking to fill underutilized space.
The library, with some 22,000 Jewish-related books and VHS videotapes, had been underutilized for several years, federation officials said (see related story).
Meanwhile, the Collinsville Child Care Center and the Head Start Community Program of Morris County, which moved in after the Brody Center closed in 2010, themselves relocated two years ago.
“We had classroom space that fit the bill” for Winston, said Howard Rabner, the federation’s CFO/COO. “When the childcare and Head Start programs left, Winston Preparatory School came looking for space to expand in New Jersey. They found us, and we negotiated a three-year lease.”
Both Rabner and federation treasurer Sam Pepper, who worked together to negotiate the lease last November, declined to reveal the amount of rent the school has agreed to pay.
The school’s executive director, Scott Bezsylko, said, “We found there was a need to do what we do in this area, and this place has six classrooms, which is perfect for us, and it is geographically accessible to different communities.”
Its 31 students come from Bergen, Essex, Morris, and Union counties. “Some of them are traveling close to an hour to get here every day,” said Bezsylko.
Winston’s students are of middle and high school age. Instead of being arranged by grade level, “we group students based on their learning profile,” Bezsylko told NJ Jewish News on the day classes began.
“Our students have specific learning problems in three different categories — those who have dyslexia and difficulties with learning to read and write, those who have attention and organization problems — such as those with hyperactivity disorders — and students with what we call ‘non-verbal learning problems,’ such as difficulties with mathematical concepts, comprehension, and sometimes social skills. Many of them have not been able to meet their potential in public schools.”
Six classrooms are in what once housed the early childhood facilities. The former library will be used for Winston’s “Focus Program.” It will have six one-on-one daily instructional sessions conducted in a large room that has now been divided into cubicles. The students will work individually with a staff of reading specialists, learning specialists, and speech and language pathologists.
The tuition — $55,000 — is in some cases subsidized by local public school boards for students who it is deemed will perform better in nontraditional classrooms. “Part of the reason for the cost is that we have one faculty member for every two students,” Bezsylko explained.
Based on the experiences at Winston’s two other campuses — one in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, the other in Norwalk, Conn. — he promises a high rate of student success.
“Ninety percent of our graduates go on to college,” he said. “Many of our younger students are able to go back to mainstream schooling before they graduate from Winston. Our goal is helping them to become as independent as possible and to gain the skills to overcome what is getting in their way. Our goal should be to work toward our obsolescence in a kid’s life. If all 31 of our students acquire more skills, feel more capable, and understand themselves better than they do today, that is my first measure of success.”
Bezsylko, who was educated in public and Catholic parochial schools in the Harrisburg, Pa., area, has been developing schools like Winston Prep for 24 years. Although his educational background is in finance and economics, “I wanted to do something that would help people more, especially children,” he said. That desire launched him on a new career path that included earning a master’s degree in learning disabilities at Teachers College Columbia University.
Although Winston is being housed in a Jewish institution, Bezsylko emphasized that “we are not a religious program in any way. We have kids from a lot of different backgrounds and every religion you can imagine. People come here for one reason: Their kids are struggling in school.”
The school will be closed for the two days of Rosh Hashana, as well as during Passover week between April 3 and 13. It will also be closed in years, unlike 2014, when Yom Kippur falls on a weekday.
The Whippany building, which also includes a Gold’s Gym in space once occupied by a branch of JCC MetroWest, remains open on those holidays but will be closed on Yom Kippur.
“We tend to celebrate everything in small ways and honor everybody’s background and religion,” Bezsylko said.
At the same time, he paid homage to the Jewish culture at the Whippany campus, which in addition to the federation offices houses New Jersey Jewish News, the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey, various JCC MetroWest and Friendship Circle activities, the Harry C. Wilf Holocaust Memorial, and the Lester Senior Housing Community.
“This is a great atmosphere and has a lot of affiliations with activities that help people with various disabilities and problems, so we think it is a good cultural fit for all of us,” Bezsylko said.