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  • Development Sociology
For the past six years, Bryan Duff, senior lecturer in the department of development sociology, has supervised Cornell undergrads interning for Racker’s Partnership Program—a specialized preschool that integrates children on the autism spectrum with typically-developing peers.

On Oct. 10, Duff received the Racker Community Partner Award for Tompkins County, given to someone in the community who works to improve the lives of people with disabilities.

“Bryan Duff has been a wonderful partner from Cornell University,” said Annemarie Mattison, MSW, LSWR, a clinical social worker at Racker. “Bryan carefully identifies students who are interested in learning more about children with autism . Not only does he oversee the work of his students, he visits the classroom often—he truly supports our mission and the kids love him!”

Now in its 15th year, the program has served 154 preschoolers with autism and their families at Racker’s Ithaca and Cortland locations.

Duff credits his friend and former Cornell colleague, the late Kathy Berggren, with encouraging him to become involved in the Partnership Program.

“She was a fierce and well-connected advocate for people with disabilities,” Duff said. “Within a year of my arrival at Cornell in 2011, Kathy shared her community connections with me as part of her mentoring. In turn, just one year later, I connected my first student, Lara Gentilini, with the Racker Center’s inclusive preschool.” 

Gentilini, currently a Head Start teacher in Ferguson, Mo., and an adjunct professor at Lindenwood University, said Duff’s passion for teaching definitely rubs off on his students. 

“To say I am indebted to both Dr. Duff and the Racker Center is an immense understatement. The Racker Center was my first exposure to applied behavior analysis and, more importantly, to truly inclusive and intentional teaching practices,” she said.

At Racker, Cornell interns spend a semester working with teachers, paraprofessionals, and specialists to support a group of preschool children – some with autism and some without – who learn, play and eat together.

Coordinating among the different professionals gives the students a unique classroom experience.  “Interns also get a chance to exercise their sensitivity to nonverbal communication,” Duff said. “Some of the children do not speak, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t constantly conveying something about their needs and interests.”

Mattison said that Duff and his students bring fresh eyes and energy to the classroom. Not only do the interns work directly with children, but they also develop classroom materials, observe evaluations and accompany Racker staff on home visits.  

In turn, Duff credits Racker staff with building strong relationships with his students and treating them as professionals in the field. On site visits, he said he witnesses a true team at work. “I have seen my students providing a lap to sit on during ‘circle time,’ an enthusiastic reading voice to bring books alive, a steady hand to cut apples instead of fingers, and a sharp mind to adapt and develop materials that help children learn to communicate and fulfill their needs.”

Duff hopes to continue sending and supervising interns at Racker.

“My experience with previous interns suggests that the experience with Racker solidifies their commitment to go on to education and careers focused on the welfare of children,” he said, noting that Katrina Simon ’16, is in the middle of a Ph.D. program in developmental psychology, and Lauren Shapiro ’19, just started a program at Columbia University to become a certified teacher and applied behavior analyst.

Duff comes from a family of teachers, so his work with Racker is simply carrying on that tradition – albeit in an evolving way.

“My dad teaches medical students. My mom taught preschool and elementary school. Honestly, every year I become more and more like my mom," he said.

“I’m ok if my students forget details about Vygotsky and other developmental and educational psychologists.  But I’m not ok if they forget where good thinking, communicating, and empathizing start—early childhood. Preschool is the beginning of a long apprenticeship in good citizenship.”


Jim Catalano is a freelance writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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