Photo: Courtesy of the Campus School

The Campus School Turns 50

For half a century, this day school at BC has been educating students with severe disabilities.

A unique enclave of learning in the heart of campus has been thriving for five decades, bolstered by advocates from all corners of the University. The Campus School, located in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development, currently serves thirty-two students ages 3 to 21 who have multiple disabilities. In its classrooms, educators, therapists, and nurses work side by side to help students overcome challenges, gain independence, and experience the joy of learning. "Walking in here each day is just energizing," said Tom Miller, a special-education veteran who took over as interim director of the Campus School in January. "Challenges are put out in the open and everybody—including the administration—problem-solves together."

The Campus School was the brainchild of the late John Eichorn, a former chair of special education at the Lynch School who was inspired by an on-campus enrichment program for children with cerebral palsy that a colleague ran in 1968. Could BC create a permanent program to serve these children and others in need? The answer was yes, and in the fall of 1970, the Campus School opened its doors as one of the first publicly funded private institutions in Massachusetts designed specifically for students with multiple diagnoses. In particular, the school accepted students with cognitive disabilities, as well as children with extreme behavioral challenges who were deemed "uneducable" by the public schools.

During its first decade, the Campus School occupied eight different spaces on campus, at one point setting up shop in the Roberts Center, an athletics stadium where it shared classroom space with ROTC cadets. But even without a permanent home, the Campus School students and staff quickly became a part of the University community, and it wasn’t long before BC undergraduates began volunteering there. "Many started out thinking they were going to contribute to the benefit of the Campus School students, which they did," recalled Phil DiMattia ’54, MA’56, Ph.D.’74, a former Lynch School professor who cofounded the school and went on to become its director. "But they also received far more from their experience than they ever imagined."

From the beginning, graduate students at the Lynch School earned credit hours by working as teaching assistants, introducing new instructional models that have kept the Campus School on the cutting edge of special education. Other partnerships—on campus and beyond—developed over time. In the early ’90s, for example, BC computer science faculty asked Campus School students to help test EagleEyes, a groundbreaking new communications system that enables users to control a computer with their eyes. (The program went on to gain national recognition.)

As public schools expanded their special-education programs in the early 2000s, the Campus School’s population shifted to include more students with severe disabilities. Increasingly, educators supplemented their math and history lessons with nonacademic activities, helping students gain self-determination and career skills through participation in theater productions and experience working at the Campus School–run coffee bar. "It was an emerging practice in the field, saying there are benefits outside of a typical curriculum," said Don Ricciato ’71, MA’73, Ph.D.’00, who served as director of the school for thirty years. "We were looking at how students learn to socialize, communicate with each other, and interact outside of a lesson."

Today, that innovative, collaborative spirit is still apparent at the Campus School, which welcomes hundreds of Lynch School graduate students and BC student volunteers through its doors every year. While its facilities are now permanent—and new technological and pedagogical advances continue to abound—the smiles of the students and staff are just as contagious as they were fifty years ago. "When people are hired to join the Campus School, they’re told, ‘Welcome to a community of carers,’" DiMattia said. "When you walk into the building, you’re in an environment of sheer love." ◽