Cailin Schiller of NYC’s P373K on Autism Awareness Month, the School’s Learning Program With Mission North

Cailin Schiller of NYC’s P373K on Autism Awareness Month, the School’s Learning Program With Mission North

In honor of Autism Awareness Month, Mission North’s corporate social responsibility team, E3thos, would like to spotlight a thriving partnership that our Brooklyn office maintains with P373K – The Brooklyn Transition Center, a high school serving students who benefit from highly specialized instruction. The school, in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., accommodates a range of abilities and includes students with autism spectrum disorders, significant cognitive delays, emotional disabilities, sensory impairments, and multiple disabilities.

Cailin Schiller is a teacher at P373K, leading a class of 18-22-year-old students all working towards their GEDs. I had the privilege of meeting Cailin 24 years ago at Marine Park Day Camp in Brooklyn, long before Cailin became a fierce advocate for students with disabilities. By the time we dreamed up our volunteer program in 2022 (over a productive margarita-assisted brainstorm), Cailin had just reached her 10-year anniversary as a high school special education teacher in the New York City public school system, and was awarded a grant as a finalist for the 2022 Flag Award for Teaching Excellence. She’s been at P373K since 2017, and had a 100% success rate in helping students pass the Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC) exam before it was discontinued in 2022.

Cailin’s students are now regular visitors at our Brooklyn office, as part of outings that allow her students to glimpse our active work environment. This program also fosters an environment of two-way, mutual learning. I recently caught up with my longtime friend to learn more about her experience working with this population, and the impact of our partnership. What follows is an edited version of our discussion.

What do you think makes P373K unique in its educational approach? 

Once students begin at our school, we are already thinking about how to get appropriate services for them so that when they leave, they’re moving on to something that meets their needs. That could be a day habilitation program, supportive employment, or post-secondary schooling of some kind. But our school is unique in that it focuses on building skills, whether it be job skills or daily living skills, like self-management, to give students the best chance at the highest level of independence that they can reach. 

How does P373K (and other schools like it) help the community at large?

Schools like ours serve a marginalized population that does not have full access to everything in the city. Not only do we try to provide an environment where everything can be accessed to fulfill the needs that the students have in the moment, but we also try to provide information to their families about other federal or state-funded services for people with disabilities. Our city isn’t ADA-compliant [the Americans With Disabilities Act], but schools like ours can help fill that gap and at least raise awareness and advocate for these populations.

<split-lines>"Schools like ours serve a marginalized population that does not have full access to everything in the city."<split-lines>

Can you describe the partnership with Mission North? What have both teams accomplished so far?

Just the invitation into your home base and the welcome we’ve received in your office environment make a huge impact on my students. My kids have not had a lot of exposure to this kind of workplace. Most offices that they've gone to have to do with medical procedures, like doctors or dentists, and school offices. They haven’t seen this type of professional setting before, so just the experience of visiting, being invited and welcomed, and then being treated like any other human in the same space, is invaluable. As is the ability for everyone to learn from one another in conversation. Part of what we do at our school is give kids as many new, fun learning experiences as possible.

I think another accomplishment is broadening exposure for your team as well. Neurodivergence often refers to people on the autism spectrum more than anything else, but there are other disability profiles that people don't necessarily think about or realize, or that are invisible. I think there are things we can learn together and from one another, and things that we can learn that are unspoken by just being around new people.

<split-lines>"The invitation into your home base and the welcome we’ve received in your office environment make a huge impact on my students."<split-lines>

What kind of impact do volunteers for P373K have on the student body?

The students just want to know when they can come back! They want to have fun, and have the opportunity to be more social. But they also get to see what a professional setting looks like, and they’re able to see themselves included in a place they hadn’t imagined before. They begin to think, ‘Maybe I can get a job at a tech PR firm one day!’ That’s why this program is incredibly important.

Cailin Schiller of NYC’s P373K on Autism Awareness Month, the School’s Learning Program With Mission North

What other advocacy work are you doing at the moment?

Outside of my day job, I am working with a team of lawyers from a nonprofit organization called Advocates for Children of New York. We are reaching out to the New York State Legislature to provide more accommodations for students with disabilities who are taking the GED as their high school equivalency (HSE) diploma. The current GED test poses several barriers to students such as limited testing accommodations, an onerous request process, and an algorithmic grading system for the written component instead of a human grader. We are proposing several solutions that have been applied to other standardized testing, like the Regents exams and previous HSE exams that New York State offered. 

What is one thing you’d like others to know about your job? Any other thoughts to share?

My job is fun, but really hard and often stressful. The stakes are really high. My class is a gateway to college or more gainful employment, but we have an age limit on how long we can work with the students to pass the GED. There is pressure to make the most of the time we have. The exam is not malleable and does not factor different learning profiles into the test. I differentiate the lessons for the students’ needs with limited exam prep materials. But it’s truly fun because the kids are amazing.

I encourage the private sector to consider how they can expand their workforce to people with intellectual disabilities, who might not be college-bound but are able to be successful. I’d love to see the private sector more open to accessibility for entry-level positions that don’t need college degrees.

<split-lines>"I encourage the private sector to consider how they can expand their workforce to people with intellectual disabilities."<split-lines>

Finally, what would you say Autism Awareness Month means to you?

One thing that is important, especially during Autism Awareness Month, is supporting organizations that are run by – or that employ – people with autism. I also think that in addition to awareness, we need to include action to make life more accessible for people on the spectrum. In order to know what they need and how to make the world a more accessible place, where there is liberation from barriers, we have to include their voices and commit to addressing their needs. ​​

The other element is that because autism is a spectrum, it isn’t ‘one-size-fits-all.’ Autism awareness is about the nuance and variation and unique humanity of every single person – and loving it!

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Be sure to stay tuned to Dispatch and Mission North’s social media channels for other P373K and E3thos-related news in the months ahead!

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