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NJ Teacher of the Year Puts Theory into Practice with Autistic Preschoolers

Hoboken-based educator touts data-driven, technology-heavy approach and individual attention at young age

mark mautone
Teacher of the Year Mark Mautone of Hoboken’s Wallace School.

Mark Mautone’s classroom, located at the end of the first-floor hallway in Hoboken’s Wallace Elementary School, is anything but typical.

There are just four or five children, all of them preschoolers, but at vastly different learning levels. In addition to the teacher, there are three adult aides at any given time, each intently focused on one child.

It might be the boy eating pizza for lunch, or another student who is working through a counting exercise, or another student who is spinning a toy train around wooden tracks.

New Jersey’s Teacher of the Year for 2014 leads a classroom for preschool students diagnosed on the autism spectrum – part of a growing population in New Jersey education these days.

The number of children in the state diagnosed with autism has exploded in the last decade. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated this spring that some areas of the state have as many as one in 45 children on the autism spectrum – the highest known rate in the country.

In the last official count, the state reports more than 16,000 public school students diagnosed with autism in 2013, triple the number from 10 years before.

Mautone, 41 years old and with 19 years of experience in the classroom teaching children with disabilities, has proven to be very good at working with those children.

That’s why the state Department of Education announced last week that he’s this year’s top teacher, picked from among 21 county teachers of the year.

His credentials include an undeniable enthusiasm and an embrace of technology that is helping to change the face of autism education.

Where there were once three-ring binders for students to keep schedules and pick tasks, computer tablets are now ubiquitous in his classroom for children to poke and swipe. Where data was once kept on written spreadsheets, there’s now a small bank of computer screens to help monitor student progress.

“It’s not for everyone, I know that,” Mautone said of the technology during a recent visit. “But I remember when I was first in the classroom, I didn’t even know all the resources we had access to.”

Mautone holds a masters’ degree from Caldwell University in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), a prescriptive and data-heavy approach to teaching children with autism one task at a time – even one step to a task at a time.

For instance, counting to 10 for a child with autism may start first with matching the names of numbers to printed numbers, then writing them out, then sequencing them, all before counting them by rote.

For years, ABA has stirred debate in the autism community over whether it is too prescriptive, but Mautone touts it as researched-based and outcomes-driven.

In his own school, he said, about one-quarter of his preschool students who have come through the ABA program go into mainstream classes by kindergarten, albeit often requiring accommodations and support.

He also noted that ABA is tailored for each child, at least in his instruction, yet stresses that early one-to-one support isn’t necessarily the long-term aim.

“It really depends on the child,” Mautone said. “Sometimes it can be a dependency, and you have to be worried about that. One-to-one can be effective, but you also need to know when to fade the support.”

One thing that ABA has taught him is the importance of data.

The state’s new teacher tenure law requires teachers to use measures such as “student growth objectives” and “student growth percentiles” as part of their evaluations.

This has caused its share of angst in education circles statewide, to say the least. But for teachers like Mautone, the reliance on empirical data is nothing new -- literally hundreds of data points are gathered in just a single assessment of his students’ skills.

“It’s a little easier for us, as we have always been so data-based,” he said of the teacher-evaluation changes. “I can understand the difficulties it can be for general education teachers, but here we know all about data analysis, how to use it, how to adjust instruction to it.“

Starting in January, Mautone will be taking a six-month sabbatical from his job at Wallace School. During that time he travel around the state talking to teachers and others about best practices for teaching children with autism. His tour will be paid for by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Ewing and the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union.

“My mission is to promote high quality public education for autism, period,” he said.

Mautone said he will promote adherence to more uniform practices across school districts that he said now suffer from inconsistencies.

He would also like to see some shifts in state policy. For one, he’d like to see a specified training and certification process for teachers to serve children with autism.

“It’s important to have something,” he said. “But I understand you can’t fast-track that. I realize it is something that will take time in working with higher education and their pre-service teachers.”

In the meantime, he is already fielding requests to speak to teachers and at schools, a celebrity status that he is just getting used to and remains a little nervous about. He hopes his work with other teachers will be more than the typical professional development experience.

“I know what it it’s like to hear someone stand up there and talk for three hours,” he said. “How much do you get out of that? But if we can talk about how the teachers themselves are working and discuss that, everyone can get a lot more out of it.”

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