Michelle Boniello didn’t know who to turn to or what to do next. Her next move was vital.
For eight years, her son, Joseph, worked one-on-one with a special education teacher to overcome agenesis of the corpus collosum, which affects seven of every 1,000 people.
Joseph’s left and right sides of the brain don’t connect, creating a compromised immune system, as well as a severe learning disability.
However, problems ensued when the New York City Department of Education (DOE) started giving the Boniello family problems.
“We got to high school and every high school in Queens turned me away,” Michelle explained. “They wouldn’t take Joseph. The department of education asked me to put him in Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Bayside with behavioral children without a one-on-one teacher. I couldn’t do that to him. I was setting him up for failure.”
So what would she do? She cried and cried, researching until she found a school that would not only accept him, but would cater to the one-on-one treatment he needs in order to succeed.
But that’s when she found the Fusion Academy in Woodbury, which assists “students where they are and helps them thrive from their unique beginning.” The tuition, though, is hefty compared to the free education this Bayside-based family would normally have at Cardozo.
Boniello had no choice but to sue the DOE after they refused to accommodate Joseph’s needs. They wanted to put him in a special education class with dozens of other kids who have behavioral issues, refused to give him a one-on-one teacher and most of all, would force him to take the annual regents exams, which he wouldn’t do well on because of his disability.
Joseph likely wouldn’t even receive a regular high school diploma.
“You’re talking about $40,000 for school,” Michelle said. “My husband is a postal worker and I’m on disability. We have another son who goes to St. John’s University. I had to do a fundraiser last year to raise some of the funds to pay for Joseph to go to school. On June 26, the department of education settled my case and decided they will pay for the Fusion Academy for the ninth grade.”
Joseph, now 15, is thriving at the Fusion Academy, which his mother said is the best thing that has ever happened to him.
“He gets one-on-one learning all day long, as well as a special education teacher to help with reading because he reads at a third or fourth grade level due to the processing issues,” Michelle said.
Just two years ago, Joseph was 3’9” and weighed 49 pounds. But when doctors began giving him a growth hormone, he shot up to 5’7” and now weighs a healthy 126 pounds.
But there are still issues he battles, specifically while learning. Besides the reading issues, he struggles to focus when a teacher speaks while writing on a chalkboard, for example.
At the Fusion TAcademy, unlike in New York City’s school system, no one questions Joseph’s disability. Instead, they are determined to help him succeed. Thus far, he’s already excelled and a large part of it is thanks to his mother’s ability to fight for him as soon as she found out about this agenesis when he was born.
“Three minutes after he was born, they did an MRI that confirmed he was missing the bridge that connects the left side of the brain to the right,” she said. “There’s nothing they could tell you about it. They just said, ‘Good luck.’”
In the weeks after Joseph was born, Michelle scheduled an appointment with a neurologist at Cohen Children’s Medical Center. They warned her about the symptoms that come with this disease: Seizures, feeding issues, hearing problems and more.
Fortunately, she took as many preventative steps as she could to give him a chance, including speech, occupational and physical therapy. When the family realized Joseph wasn’t speaking at 2 years old, they went to an ENT, who realized chronic ear infections caused a 30 percent loss in hearing.
“They put tubes in his ears and five hours later, he was talking because he could hear,” Michelle said. “It wasn’t easy having people in my house, 30 minutes here, 30 minutes there. He walked at 14 months, which we were ecstatic, because we didn’t know if he would walk.”
To top it off, Joseph is tackling this disease better than anyone expected. Not only is he doing well in the classroom, but this lad frequents Herrill Lanes each Friday night and Saturday morning as a competitive bowler.
“He’s an athlete and I don’t know how,” Michelle said. “He just won a tournament in Syracuse. He won a $1,000 scholarship at Herrill Lanes, beating more than 20 kids.”
Joseph truly is an inspiration for all, showing that you can overcome any obstacle that comes your way.