Kennedy Krieger Institute to Open New Early-Childhood Center, Putting Inclusion at Forefront


The Kennedy Krieger Institute has always been dedicated to serving the community, helping children and teenagers with disabilities and neurological disorders. It offers medical care for those who need it. Now, the institute — a Johns Hopkins nonprofit affiliate in Baltimore — is branching out and focusing on educating the same people it serves with its plans for a new early-childhood education center, set to open in July.

The Kennedy Krieger Institute (Wikimedia Commons)

The preschool, whose curriculum is designed for young children ages 3 to 5, will be hosting a class of 40 students from Baltimore’s underserved minority communities. The new center is geared to create an inclusive environment for all, including neuro-diverse children and those with special needs, to both play and learn.

The center’s opening is sponsored by a generous grant from the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), which awarded Kennedy Krieger $7 million in funding for the project. Federal Community Project Funding awarded an additional $1.2 million that is geared for both the new center and the institute’s existing educational programs.

“There’s been a concern about the comfort level of child-care providers in taking young children who have disabilities and integrating them with typically developing children in a learning space,” explained Dr. Nancy Grasmick, chair of the institute’s board of directors. “We decided to go after a grant that would help us establish a center and study how these two populations learn together. Importantly, we knew we wanted to make this center a demonstration site so that educators and child-care providers from around the state of Maryland can see how this is done and replicate our program.”

“This model center is designed to serve students and their families and advance educators’ knowledge and effectiveness,” added Kennedy Krieger president and CEO Brad Schlaggar, M.D., Ph.D.

The entire facility was renamed the Kennedy Institute in 1968 in memory of President John F. Kennedy, who enacted the Medical Training Act during his administration to protect the rights and improve the lives of persons with disabilities. In 1992, the name was again slightly changed to the Kennedy Krieger Institute, adding in and honoring original board member and longtime supporter Zanvyl Krieger.

The youngest of eight children born in 1906 in Baltimore to wealthy Jewish liquor sellers and distributors Herman and Bettie Farber Krieger, he became a lawyer, businessman and philanthropist who amassed (and then went on to donate) a fortune through an investment in U.S. Surgical Corp, which manufactured surgical staples.

Krieger was also a major investor in Baltimore sports teams, including the Baltimore Colts, Baltimore Orioles and Baltimore Clippers.

The news is especially welcome in February: Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month.

‘Positive consequences for the children of Maryland’

Kennedy Krieger Institute already offers a variety of educational opportunities for children ages 5 to 21 with special needs. Where the new center differs from these existing programs, though, is its focus on underserved and marginalized populations in Baltimore.

The center’s goal is to help bridge educational gaps that exist in these populations and offer their children a comprehensive learning experience during their formative years.

“A top priority for the MSDE is to advance equity and inclusion for young children and their families, which will lead to better learning outcomes. This completely aligns with our goals at Kennedy Krieger,” said Grasmick. “We want to advance learning opportunities for as many children as we can, and we know this must start with early-childhood education.”

Zanvyl Krieger (Wikimedia Commons)

In order to support this goal, added Grasmick, tuition to the center will be free. Prospective students will be selected through an application process.

“In our outreach and acceptance of students, we will be looking for children of low-income circumstances. That’s a population that we will be interested in accommodating, as Kennedy Krieger has always served children at all income levels,” she said. “We also are interested in providing geographic access by being a demonstration site and showcasing strategies that could be applicable to every jurisdiction in Maryland.”

Because of the institute’s focus, it was important for its staff that the new education center be accommodating for neuro-diverse children. Specially trained teachers, therapists and social workers will be on-site to help with any students that may have learning-related or physical difficulties, using Kennedy Krieger’s prior experience to help these children in a school setting.

“Not every school in the state in Maryland can accommodate children who have diverse needs or atypical development. There really isn’t a school model where half of the population is typically developing and half of the population is atypically developing. So, we think this learning center is the first of a kind,” noted Grasmick.

The center will further incorporate Kennedy Krieger’s existing telehealth technology to allow for remote visits with any professionals at the center that students might need.

“The center will be in a Kennedy Krieger building dedicated to early childhood, and it will have technology that will allow for telehealth visits with behavioral and medical pediatric specialists, as well as virtual training … for teachers in the program as well as educators/providers from other entities that we will train,” said Dr. Elizabeth Thompson, vice president of Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Department of Family and Community Interventions.

She said “two classrooms will have observation booths from where those in training can see what is happening in the classroom in real time.”

Ultimately, the staff hopes that the curriculum offered by the new center will be able to suit the needs of children who may not be adequately supported by other school systems, whether that is because of their social class or ethnic background or because of their specific neurological or physical needs.

“This early-learning center can have a lot of positive consequences for the children of Maryland,” said Grasmick. “We hope that after leaving this school, students with atypical development will be able to be better integrated into their communities.”

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