PARAMUS, N.J. – Students with disabilities in Robert Fusco’s classes at Bergen Community College (BCC) where he teaches math are never a statistic. Nor is any student treated as part of a collective whole, rather, an individual.
Even in a subject as challenging as statistics, there was never an equation to a learning difficulty that could not be solved, despite a number of Fusco’s students being deaf, blind, deaf-blind and on the autism spectrum. Surprisingly, teaching these students, he said, is a joy, as their determination to learn makes the probability for success that much greater. Inside his classes at the two-year college on Paramus Road, visually impaired students felt their way over the bell curve in braille, while deaf students worked with their interpreter to grasp his lessons.
“They work so hard,” said Fusco in a recent phone interview. “They put so much effort into it, and some of them are such a joy to be around.”
Fusco was one of seven Bergen County honorees at the county’s 21st Annual Salute to Champions Breakfast, held at the college on October 25 in conjunction with National Disability Awareness Month. The occasion honors individuals who demonstrate a commitment to inclusion and changing attitudes. Fusco’s receipt of his award, however, was a “surprise” to him, as he’s far from the self-celebratory type.
“I’m just doing my job,” he said casually.
Bergen County Executive James Tedesco honored Fusco for helping implement creative methods for students to learn and eliminating fear and anxiety from the equation. Though he has a sister with Down syndrome, becoming a professor to students with special needs wasn’t necessarily part of his plan. Originally an engineering major, he switched his career path to math given the availability of jobs. A Bergen Community College student himself, he received two associate’s degrees in arts and science before earning a bachelor’s degree in pure and applied mathematics from Montclair State University and then a master’s in math education online from the University of Phoenix.
In the mid-2000s, Fusco returned to BCC before starting out as a tutorial supervisor and test proctor at BCC, serving thereafter as an adjunct professor before accepting a full-time position in which he changed the course of learning for students with disabilities.
“I have educationally-wise, no formal training in working with students with disabilities,” said Fusco, aside from having learned sign language. “The training is my life experience.”
After helping his mother care for his sister and having watched her struggle, he wondered if she would be better off living in her birthplace of Rhode Island or living with her older sister in Maryland. While his mother at the time told him he didn’t realize how good she had it in Bergen County given the plethora of valuable resources for persons with special needs, it later dawned on him after she had passed away.
“That’s when I saw what my mother was talking about,” he recalled. “Bergen County, the state of New Jersey especially, they have services for developmentally and physically disabled adults and children that you cannot find anywhere. It’s spectacular. If I were getting this award in Texas, I would say the same thing. You can’t beat Bergen County.”
His sister, Beth Anne, took advantage of the Bergen County Special Services Bus and participated in the Special Olympics at various high schools. She also got a job once at luxury automaker BMW cleaning cars. As Fusco watched his sister succeed in hurdling challenges, he delighted in the same in his students, however many practice runs it took.
“Students put way too much emphasis on tests, and I tell them I need to know what you know, and need to know what you don’t know, so I can teach you what you don’t know,” said Fusco. “I look at the test as not just a grade but [as a springboard] so I can make sure you learn what you’re supposed to learn.”
Apart from arranging for all statistics tests to be administered in braille for his blind students, (which he had secured through a blind student who had worked for a company who provided such examines) Fusco encourages his students to come up to the drawing board to solve math problems and engage with their classmates from whom they’d field questions. Though an activity most of his students viewed as a chore, it was something one deaf student in particular took enjoyment in, despite the inevitable heckler whom she clapped back at after the student made a wisecrack.
“She came right back at him,” Fusco recalled. “It was like you wouldn’t know she was a deaf student. It speaks volumes about the student.”
After the girl's interpreter informed her of the student’s snide comment, Fusco said she wasn't fazed in the least and quipped, “You couldn’t do what I can!”
Another one of Fusco’s students, a young man with autism whom he taught in his basic math class, overcame social anxiety with a little help from his supportive classmates.
“His social aspect was extremely challenging,” Fusco recalled of the student. “He didn’t know how to interact with the class. He was very awkward interacting with other students; he didn’t have the navigational skills.”
After a few weeks had passed, the student, though slow to warm up, settled in and was able to shake off his awkward feelings and assimilate with his peers.
“I had a good class. I do group work, and at one point he fit in, and he got it,” said Fusco. “In his mind, the awkwardness went away. I don’t know if he got comfortable or picked up on the cues that the other students were trying to help him fit in. He was just being another student in class.”
It's not just teaching students with challenges that Fusco said enriches his life, but joyfully watching them finish school, disabilities and all.
“The student I remember the most who went through all the phases with me was [a student named] Vivienne,” he said. “She had taken basic arithmetic and algebra. When she graduated, and I watched her get her diploma, I programed myself so that I wasn’t going to cry. ‘Wow, this is phenomenal,’ I thought. It hit a spot in me. I couldn’t [resist].”