Q&A with Diane Gallagher, Executive Director of HMS School in West PhillyBy Erin Kane (Photos by Neal Santos) |
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HMS School sits on a stretch of land adjoining Clark Park, a storied West Philadelphia green space as old — and beloved — as the school itself. Established in 1882, HMS serves 57 children — ages 5 to 21 — with cerebral palsy and other neurological impairments.
The comprehensive school draws students from nearby counties and across the country. Some make it their home. Vibrant art and music programs accompany specialized speech, communication and physical therapies. Children in power wheelchairs maneuver down the halls.
Yet while HMS’ sun-filled classrooms and airy residences overlook the park and a busy neighborhood thoroughfare, passersby might mistake it for little more than a sleepy, well-maintained landmark.
HMS’ Executive Director Diane Gallagher has devoted more than three decades to giving students a school experience similar to any other child’s. We sat down with Diane to talk about her leadership philosophy, the factors that account for the school’s longevity, and what keeps her up at night.
Despite its history, why does HMS School appear to be one of the best-kept secrets in West Philadelphia?
It may be true that we are a hidden jewel: we have such a niche specialty that its hard for people to find out about us. We try to stay in touch with the community and be more inviting and open to the things around us.
How do you do that?
In the last few years, because we are handicap accessible, we became a voting location, which offers another way for people to come into the school.
Our 2008 renovation also was deliberately designed so that windows in our residences would face the street; resident students love to watch the trolley go by.
As Executive Director, one can imagine that your role requires you to balance pragmatic and emotional responsibilities. What is your approach?
We individualize everything. We are small enough to look at individuals, and yet there are parameters. Where we do have flexibility, we apply that to other areas.
Do you mean with students or with your staff?
Across the board. We evaluate each situation as it presents itself; that takes a great deal of trust. We are really good at building trust and looking at circumstances as they come up. Of course, tensions are there, but we are very supportive and recognize that we have a great staff.
It’s a delicate balance — meeting fiduciary responsibilities, making sure there aren’t any missteps, not being afraid to correct things. We keep an eye toward what we are doing and the big picture.
What’s the big picture?
Providing the best service to each student and parent, educating other people, and creating ambassadors.
And that communication is power: we empower people who don’t have the ability to communicate. We ask ourselves, ‘How can we help [students] gain access?’ That’s what it’s all about — giving them access so that they see themselves as successful human beings.
What is your leadership style?
I feel a need to mentor, to demonstrate what I believe by showing the right way. Setting goals that we can all celebrate is important, so that everyone knows what is expected.
I also meet informally with employees once a month without an agenda — ground rules are established at the outset. It’s a great opportunity to find out what we can do better and involve staff input in a structured way.
HMS has many long-term staff and faculty members. How do you account for their longevity?
If you have a passion for working with children, HMS School is a very positive place to work. We feel like an extended family, helping each child develop in a holistic way.
Staff are an essential cog in this whole system and receive regular recognition and opportunities to grow. We support them financially, if they choose to pursue additional education, and we encourage them to present at conferences.
And we are a perfect size; I don’t want to be a bigger school. Here, no one is anonymous.
Sometimes, we tend to treat people with disabilities differently. Most of the children who attend HMS have motor impairments and can’t communicate verbally without a device. What advice do you have for those of us who may not know how to best interact with your students.
Make the assumption that they are capable of understanding. Put yourself at their eye level, smile and be patient, because formulating a response takes time. Try to interact normally, and if they do not respond, that’s okay. Being positive is far preferable, and often they do understand.
So don’t make assumptions. Offer to help, but ask first.
Eight students recently graduated from HMS and will now enter the challenging outside world. How can we — the public — be prepared to receive them?
Recognize that they need our energy in order to advocate for themselves. Be aware of that dilemma. So many people have needs . . . I worry about that in an era of budget cuts.
We have a responsibility to our fellow human beings, to support people in their time of need. Our kids, they can’t fend for themselves, but they are not any different. The quality of their lives matters just as much as anyone else’s.
What keeps you up at night?
I worry about emergencies with the students — they are more medically complicated than ever before. They don’t always have the same life expectancy, and the entire community feels their loss.
Funding what we do is also needed: it’s a matter of people finding our services.
How can people get involved? What do you look for in potential volunteers?
We encourage people to apply to volunteer. We are looking for people who really understand our values system, people who are engaged and are willing to work extra hard. We really value volunteers who can come back — it makes our community that much stronger. There’s always a need for fresh faces.
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