It's all about individuality: Lakeland Andover School provides more than academics

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  • 2015 Lakeland Andover School graduate Desiree Torres catches up with Child Study Team leader Sandi Bloom in her office on Wednesday, Oct. 17.

  • Lakeland Andover School counselor Leslie Malnak (l) and physical education teacher Kirk Kandel (r) discuss the school's vocational programs in Malnak's office, on

  • Culinary arts student Jakob works on meal preparation in the LAS Café at the Lakeland Andover School in Lafayette. 

  • Student artwork is on display in the upstairs hall of the Lakeland Andover School in Lafayette. 

  • The café at the Lakeland Andover School in Lafayette shows off student handiwork in the form of a mural and napkin holders.

  • 18-year-old Randy, a senior at the Lakeland Andover School, prepares to work out in the school's weight room. The school's physical education program includes individual workout plans for students. Randy's program is designed to keep him in shape for playing football in his home school district. 

  • The Lakeland Andover School in Lafayette offers students grades 7-12 with behavioral and emotional issues an alternative to a traditional public school setting. (Photos by Mandy Coriston)

By Mandy Coriston

Lafayette - It's all about individuality at Lakeland Andover School. The dedication of faculty and staff goes beyond academics for their 7th through 12th graders. It encompasses vocational training as well as life skills.

The school was founded in 1972 by Gerard Pinto, whose vision included educational space where children with behavioral and emotional challenges could learn in a healthy, comfortable way. With a limited enrollment which most years includes no more than 40 students, each child is allowed to explore which activities are the best fit. A faculty-student ratio of 1:2, in most classes, allows for up to six students per class.

Principal Gary DeFeo, who retired from a career in law enforcement in 2001, says the school's therapeutic.

“We provide state-mandated academics, but many of our kids had difficulty in a large school setting," he said. "We offer the vocational programs and counseling that many public schools can’t.”

Students are from Sussex County, as well as Warren, Morris, and Passaic counties. Some live with parents, others with grandparents or family guardians, and others still live in group home settings. “The sending district’s Child Study Team (CST) looks for options for their special needs students,” DeFeo said, “and if they feel our program is a strong choice, we’ll interview the student to see if it’s a good fit for them and us.”

Students who remain academically and behaviorally eligible may take part in sports and social activities at their sending districts.

Sandi Bloom said every student here has been diagnosed with a behavioral or emotional issue. Bloom is school nurse, head of cst and assistant to the director.

“Our vocational programs are really a strength for us when it comes to individual education plans," she said.

Students can take electives such as wood work, fine arts, music, culinary skills, or digital arts,

Bloom also coordinates a work-study program for juniors and seniors in good standing.

"Businesses have been very supportive of our efforts.” she said.

Mel Condit, a seasoned chef, oversees students in the kitchen. Students eat breakfast and lunch daily in the “LAS Café." Condit spoke while students Jakob and Jenna, both 17, worked on the next day’s meals.

“I try to teach the kids everything I can. wE go over everything from best kitchen practices to baking and cooking, practiced butchering skills." said Condit. "We just had some nice pork shoulders that I taught the kids to separate,"

A cook at the Lake Lenape Lodge in Andover in th 1970s and having worked in catering for 30 years, Condit started at the Lakeland Andover School three years ago. Student Jenna was putting together wet and dry ingredients for a batch of breakfast muffins.

“I already loved cooking," she said. "But Mel is great. He’s like a second father to me.”

Across the hall from the café Suzanne Montgomery, a native of Northern Ireland and a graduate of the Parsons School of Design, says guiding the students, rather than directing, is key.

Jack Wyman’s wood shop students are building high-back Adirondack chairs. Chuck Mills teaches several courses including video production.

“Our goal this year is to produce a school news program,” Mills said. "We’re working on preparing our equipment and learning how to use the video cameras and editing software.”

Kirk Kandel, the school’s physical education teacher helps with customized work outs.

“I have kids who now play football in their home districts, and I make sure they have a plan in place to focus on their athletics,” he said,

Randy, an 18-year-old senior, was doing exactly that. He's on his sending district's football team.

“I play corner on defense, and split receiver on offense,” he said. Randy also enjoys producing music, which he can work on at school under the instruction of music teacher Jacqlyn O’Lecki.

Guidance counselor Leslie Malnak Malnak is a licensed drug and alcohol counselor and therapist.

“I was in private practice when Mr. Pinto, the founder, sought me out,” she said. "I’ve been here ever since.”

Malnak’s cozy office has a large comfortable sofa, for napping, and well-worn oversized easy chair, for talking.

A hallmark of the school’s success is frequent visits from former students. On this day, 2015 graduate Desiree Torres is in Sandi Bloom’s office, catching up with her former mentor. “I came here in the middle of 8th grade,” Torres said, “I was being bullied terribly in my old school. Even though I’m not good with change, I felt comfortable as soon as I got here.” Torres said she still speaks with Bloom often by phone and text.

“I loved it here,” Torres said, “This place is like a family."

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