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Legislature helps restore Autism programs at Nassau C.C.

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The Achilles and ASPIRES programs at Nassau Community College, designed to assist students with autism thrive in and out of the classroom, will be restored for the 2020-21 academic year after the Nassau County Legislature voted unanimously June 29 to approve the college’s budget.

Citing finances as the primary reason, NCC sent a letter April 20 to the coordinators of both programs, Valerie Lagakis and Frances Viscovich, informing them the platforms for students with autism would not be offered this coming school year.

As reported in the Heralds’ June 4-10 edition, the decision was met with a wave of negativity, and members of the Legislature’s majority Republican caucus vowed not to pass the NCC budget until the programs were restored. The programs serve 35 to 40 students per semester. Legislators worked closely with educators, community members and college leadership to keep them going.

Following the approval of the budget, Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello said, “I am very happy to see the Achilles and ASPIRES program

restored at Nassau Community College. Nassau County prides itself on

being a place that is welcoming and provides opportunity for everyone to

excel, and these programs do exactly that.

“I’m thankful for the professors and parents who raised awareness about the programs,” he added. “Their tireless advocacy led to the restoration. I would also like to thank NCC President [Dr. Jermaine] Williams for his personal efforts to find a path to continue the programs. We are proud that in these difficult times Nassau Community College continues to be an invaluable resource for our residents.”

Jeff Spiller, of Bellmore, said his son Jason, a 2018 Mepham High School graduate, benefits from the ASPIRES program, especially when it comes to assistance with organizational skills. “It’s a huge relief. I’m so happy the program is back,” Jason said. “I never got an ‘A’ in any high school class, but I’ve had three so far at Nassau.”

The Achilles program has been around for nearly two decades and is for twice exceptional students — those who are gifted but learning challenged. Lagakis, an English and reading professor at NCC, has overseen the program since 2010. “Students are specifically attending our school because of the Achilles program,” Lagakis said. “The program didn’t exist for a few months, so this is great progress. I’m very grateful to the legislators.”

The ASPIRES program provides comprehensive support to students with ASD in weekly counseling sessions as well as programming designed to address executive-functioning and social-skill deficits. “The program started with one student six years ago,” noted Viscovich, who teaches environmental science. “Now we have a waiting list. The college can be a leading force in supporting this student population, and I’m beyond excited to see these programs restored.”

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, encouraged the college to reconsider its original decision to remove the programs and met with Williams in mid-May. Our differently abled students have thrived under the ASPIRES and Achilles programs,” Kaminsky said. “Restoring their funding, and ensuring that it remains a source of support for future students was essential.”