Janice Friedman was hired as a teacher at Variety Child Learning Center of Syosset in 1975 when there were only 24 students enrolled at the not-for-profit special-education center. In 2008 she took over as chief executive at VCLC, which today has 270 children enrolled and provides services to another 750 kids each year.
The center, which receives funding through the state Education Department, federal grants and private donors, helps children and their families with learning, language and behavior challenges including autism. One in 68 U.S. children had an autism spectrum disorder -- an increase of nearly 30 percent from 2008 to 2010, according to a March report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Friedman, 62, said she is also seeing an increase on Long Island.
How do parents enroll their kids in your school?
If their children are having learning issues or behavior challenges and they need early intervention or special education, they have to go to the Department of Health to have an evaluation done if their child is under age 3, or to the school district if the child is age 3 or above. It's those entities that will determine that the child is eligible to come to a setting like Variety.
You're hiring. What do you look for?
Maturity, knowledge, staff that can work in a fishbowl because we are an open school -- so everything they're doing in their classrooms is open to view by parents. We are always looking for therapists, teacher assistants, even teachers -- not necessarily to do center-based work but to do offsite fee-for-service work: speech, occupational and physical therapies, parent training, special instruction, evaluations.
How do you protect your staff from burnout?
It's hard because funding for one of our programs has been pretty frozen for the last five years, so we have not been able to give our teachers and any of our staff [pay] increases and that's a real challenge. But I think our staff love their job, they love the children, and they are motivated by the children's progress. So we work hard in moving up their self-esteem, but we always risk [having them recruited away because] our salaries don't compete with the public schools.
What else do you do to retain staff?
We invest in them, we give them as much staff development as we can, and send them out to training. We also do a few little fun perks here and there -- holiday parties, for staff orientation the first day we bring in an ice cream truck, little things, but if we could give them a raise, that would be the best.
How does your socialization program help kids with real-life situations and future careers?
We have an age-related curriculum [from age 3 to teens] and we start with teaching the basics -- sharing, taking turns, how to communicate with each other, how to read somebody's language . . . Some of our children don't know turn-taking during a conversation. We prepared our teen group to go for a job interview: writing up a resume, being able to present themselves, introduce themselves properly, making eye-contact, all the basics.
What is your respite program?
We have a respite program on 18 Sundays during the year, funded by the Office of People with Developmental Disabilities and Medicaid. Any child in Nassau and Suffolk County who is between the ages of 3 and 10 and who meets OPWDD's eligibility standards is eligible. It gives the parent respite and their other children can enjoy a day without having to worry about the behaviors and the challenges of their other child. It's a structured environment [in which] we help the children develop recreational skills.
NAME: Janice Friedman, CEO, Variety Child Learning Center of Syosset
WHAT IT DOES: Provides early intervention, special education and related therapies to young children with developmental disabilities and support services to families.
EMPLOYEES: 183 full time; 153 part time
ESTIMATED 2014 REVENUE: $14 million