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Education Beyond Academia

Ask almost any alumna from the early to mid-1970s what stands out from her time at Miss Hall’s School and some answers sound quite familiar: classmates and fellow students with whom they formed lasting bonds, faculty, and adults who supported and encouraged them, a community that welcomed them.
Something else also stands out — the Autistic Children’s Program.

“For many, many students at that time, it was a life-changing experience,” says Dean of Academics and Faculty Lisa Alberti ’73, who participated for three years. “I remember it as a great program that was very structured, very meaningful, and ongoing, as opposed to one-off community service.”

Launched in the fall of 1970 through a partnership with Pittsfield Public Schools, the initiative brought autistic children from throughout the Berkshires to MHS, where they worked one-on-one with Miss Hall’s students under the direction of Rich Romboletti, a 24-year-old recent college graduate who had worked with autistic children as an undergraduate. A second full-time teacher and a part-time aide rounded out the adult presence for the program, but the one-on-one instruction was the program’s essential component.

“We developed the lesson plans, but the rest of the program was all the girls,” explains Mr. Romboletti, now semi-retired after a lengthy career with the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services and in private practice as a psychologist. “And, because it was a daylong program, we
needed a lot of students to help. It would not have been able to happen without them.”

It also would not have happened without Headmaster Donald T. Oakes, who had arrived at the School a year earlier. His thinking in offering space at MHS and student assistance was that the children would not be the only ones to benefit, explains Mary Jean (M.J.) Weston ’71, Mr. Oakes’ daughter.

“My father really liked innovative programs,” recalls M.J., who also was among the MHS students who volunteered for the work. “He liked things that were beyond academia and that were not standard classroom learning. He saw the School’s participation not only as a contribution to the community by housing the program but also as a learning opportunity for Miss Hall’s students.”

The program’s goal was for the youngsters, many of whom would have otherwise been institutionalized, to be integrated into special education programs in their own local public schools. It started with three students in the morning and three in the afternoon, grew to six and six after two months, and quickly moved to a full-day offering, with twelve to fifteen youngsters attending each semester.

Housed near the Music Wing, the program used the music practice rooms for one-on-one work. They proved ideal, offering a quiet space that cut down on external stimuli, and some MHS students could play the piano, which was another way to connect with the children and reward their progress.

One frequent reward for work well done was a walk through the School, and Mr. Romboletti recalls one student who would travel the MHS Main Building repeating, “My school. My school. My school.” “The program really normalized things for them,” he says. “They were part of a school community.”

For MHS students, the commitment was substantial. They participated in an orientation at the beginning of the year and committed to volunteering during free blocks. “It may have even been more than once per week, in order to have a substantial experience,” M.J. recalls.

“The consistency was critically important for the kids, so that they could begin to develop some memory of us.” Establishing a connection with the youngsters was vital, and the students excelled at it. “The girls were empathetic and nurturing and very good at building relationships
with the students,” notes Mr. Romboletti. “I can’t say enough about how committed they were to the work. They asked tons of questions and were really invested.”

MHS students also took psychology classes with Mr. Romboletti, visited institutions such the Belchertown State School, and read texts about autism and related topics. A summer program included student volunteers from Pittsfield high schools, and the program would broaden, later serving youngsters with communications disorders. It also added space in the former Tennis Building, the predecessor to the Anne Meyer Cross ’37 Athletics Center.

Mr. Romboletti, who was employed by the Pittsfield school system, oversaw the program until June of 1975, when he went to graduate school, ultimately earning his Ph.D. The Autistic Children’s Program, later renamed the Communications Disorders Program, continued at MHS through at least the 1976-77 year and possibly 1977-78, but does not appear to have continued afterward.

A growing Miss Hall’s enrollment necessitated a move from the Music Wing, and required investments in the Tennis Building might have been an obstacle to continuing. Though the program did not approach the longevity of Horizons, it left its mark on the children it served, the MHS students who participated, and on Mr. Romboletti. “One thing that stands out is how supportive the School itself was,” he says. “Don Oakes, especially, was very, very supportive. He would visit the kids, and having spent as much time as he had with younger students, he had an intuitive knowledge of how to work with children. With Don, anything was possible. He also wanted to bust out of the model of a boarding school being an isolated place, and for the MHS students, the experience was probably quite character building. I think it was a very powerful experience for everyone involved.”
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Located in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, Miss Hall's School is a private, college preparatory, boarding and day high school for girls grades 9-12.
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