NEW YORK—Francis Tabone could have been a rock star. Really. He was one of the early guitarists for the rock band Dig, which gained fame in the 1990s, after he had left. Instead, he gave it all up for a job that often tests the limits of patience.
“I didn’t love playing or getting on stage … but I love coming to work everyday, I really do,” Tabone said.
He is the head of Cooke’s Grammar School, a private special education school that accepts all students, regardless of their family’s economic background. Prior, he was a teacher and special education coordinator under the Department of Education for 10 years.
Tabone views children with mental disabilities as people who have a different way of thinking, rather than as children with problems. Only through acceptance and understanding can we truly help someone, he says.
“I have a million conversations a day with typically developing people and that’s okay,” he said. “But when you talk to kids who have a different way of looking at things, processing things, or a different way of articulating things, it is a much more interesting interaction.”
Tabone, 47, has a doctorate in psychology. Instead of opening a private practice and working from home, he chooses to arrive at school by 5:30 every morning to do administrative work.
He did not pursue graduate studies in psychology for the money it could bring, nor was it from a lifelong interest in the subject. It began with frustrations from his early teaching career.
Tabone had been a teacher in South Bronx in the early ’90s. At the time, there were neither resources nor a model for teaching special education in New York.
He had been assigned to teach a class of 30, specifically for students who had behavior issues. It was a broad category. Some had nothing but temper tantrums; others had autism, while some were significantly behind in mental development.
Among the motley crew was an autistic child named Richie. After graduation, Tabone could not find a middle school that would accept him.
Although Tabone taught at a grade school for kindergarten to sixth-graders, he continued to teach Richie for his seventh- and eighth-grade education.
“The district didn’t have any place for him,” he said. “He was in my class but completely out of place.”
Over the years, Tabone developed a personal interest in Richie and the other children. He spent countless hours trying to teach them how to read and write, but oftentimes nothing would stick.
“I had to stop and ask, what’s going on? It’s my fault; I’m doing something wrong. I’m not reaching a learner in a way that they should be reached,” he said.
“Richie had an incredible memory for facts and ideas but he can’t comprehend first grade stories. I was so driven to understand cognitive development. … I became obsessed,” he said.
Hence, Tabone went on to get his doctoral degree at Fordham University.
Learning From Students
“I’m a person who believes in everything because some of it must be right,” Tabone said. “Be open minded, really absorb as much as you can from your experiences and from the world.”
Every day can be an opportunity to grow and become a better person. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a lot can be learned from children with learning disabilities.
“I really have to be empathetic and take their perspective on how they are seeing things. It can be challenging,” he said. “But it’s enlightening and enriching.”
Tablone has a 4-year-old daughter. “I hope it pans out with my work with my own children,” he said.
An Assuring Goodbye
Some of the children come to the school with significant disabilities. The school has a program for students who are very limited in their independence. A mostly nonverbal student who came in earlier this school year has begun speaking and asking for things and making decisions on his own.
Another girl with cognitive delays has made a year’s worth of reading progress within six months.
“There is very intense support here, and when you see the payoffs, it’s amazing,” he said.
When Tabone used to work for city schools, graduation was not only a day of celebration, but also a day that represents uncertainty for the future.
“I used to cross my fingers and hope for the best for these guys,” he said.
Working for Cooke Grammar School, he has made sure graduations are handled differently. Each student is sent off with a personalized, comprehensive plan.
“We are not sending our kids into the real world without a real fund of background skills and knowledge they can use,” he said.