Cheryl Gitlitz ’83, M.S.W. ’84, serves more than 700 special needs students in Long Island’s Bellmore-Merrick Central High Schools.
By Erin Donohue
High school is no panacea, but leaving it for college or work often induces anxiety. For students with special needs and their families, the transition is usually even more consequential and, in turn, stressful.
Few people are more aware of this than Cheryl Gitlitz ’83, M.S.W. ’84, the district-wide transition coordinator for Long Island’s Bellmore-Merrick Central High Schools. Ms. Gitlitz serves more than 700 special needs students—some as old as 21—counseling them on what to do after high school.
Cheryl Gitlitz ’83, M.S.W. ’84, and her colleagues initiated a student-run store and coffee shop at Calhoun High School. Ms. Gitlitz LEFT is in the Java Room with students Jim Roeder, Ashley Florscher and Erin Murphy, as well as MaryJo Kennedy, a vocational rehab counselor and trainer from South Oaks Hospital.
Fortunately for the Bellmore-Merrick families, Ms. Gitlitz is an experienced innovator. When she started in her role more than a decade ago, she instituted the district’s first comprehensive transition fair, similar to a job expo. In the same vein, Ms. Gitlitz invites the disability programs and student support groups from colleges to a special needs college fair. More than 30 schools, including Adelphi, participated in the most recent one.
Ms. Gitlitz and her team, though, were tested in January 2012 when the district’s special education department budget was cut. She recalls being asked “how we could be more efficient, save costs…enhance our programs.”
They came up with The Stable, a retail store, which opened at Calhoun High School in Merrick, New York, in October 2012. Store employees are students from the Prep for Life program who would otherwise travel to offsite locations for externships. The venture, the first of its kind at a public school in the region, has already saved the district thousands of dollars in transportation costs.
Beyond savings, The Stable offers a sense of ownership to the student employees who help decide what to sell, set prices, keep inventory and manage daily operations.
Ms. Gitlitz is accustomed to inventing opportunities for students who, for a variety of reasons, are disadvantaged. In her first full-time job out of graduate school, as the director of teen services for the YM-YWHA in Bay Terrace, Queens, she developed a basketball league and created an art program that drew on kids’ graffiti skills. “There was nothing drawing these kids off the streets,” she recalls. “There is a lot of potential everywhere; it’s a matter of how you redirect the behavior.”
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