Students at the Media Enrichment Academy in Sherman Oaks often arrive with a variety of labels: Autistic. Isolated. Troublemaker.
By the time Eli Katz was finished with the extracurricular program, however, the 20-year-old, who was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, had added a new one: Game designer.
“I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do,” he says.
Four years ago, Katz began attending the academy, which teaches kids between the ages of 8 and 18 to use technology and imagery to express themselves and communicate with the world. Since then, he co-created a game that teaches preschoolers about musical instruments and has done work for a couple of film studios.
This is just what founder Amit Bernstein of Encino envisioned five years ago when he started the program, which operates out of a brightly lit storefront space on Ventura Boulevard. Inside, posters and artwork hang above rows of Apple iMacs, and Bernstein tells inspiring success stories about some of the nearly 200 students he’s worked with since opening a business that specializes in working with children who have mild to moderate learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“We’ve had some kids who are nonverbal, isolated, maybe had behavior problems,” he says, remembering a boy who transformed from “the terror of the school” into a talented, award-winning graphic artist.
One student, Noah Schneider, won third prize in a museum’s Holocaust film contest as well as many other film festival awards. Another, Ezra Fields-Meyer, Bernstein says, “couldn’t sit still for five minutes” when he arrived, and he went on to create many videos. One of them was turned into the children’s book “E-mergency!” with author and illustrator Tim Lichtenheld.
“Kids that society ignores, we see the potential,” Bernstein says. “We all have strengths and weaknesses, but if you find a way to expose the strengths, then you can open doors and develop abilities that are lifelong.”
The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) teacher should know. As a boy growing up in northern Israel, Bernstein struggled with a learning disability that was eventually diagnosed as dyslexia. He was unable to read or write until he got help from a speech teacher when he was in fourth grade.
At age 15, the jolt of moving with his parents and two brothers to Los Angeles, where they had relatives, didn’t help. Not only did he have to contend with the challenge of learning English, but his classmates at Beverly Hills High School — where he struggled to graduate with a C average — laughed at his Israeli sandals. Fortunately, he says, “There was a large Jewish and Israeli community there, and we hung together.”
Then Bernstein discovered what a difference technology could make. He enrolled at Santa Monica College, where the new Microsoft Word application changed his life.
“My biggest issue was communicating in writing,” he says. “What it did, it helped me — with the spellcheck, with the ability to organize — all of that enabled me to improve writing.” That year, he says, all of his grades were A’s.
Still, Bernstein, whose grandparents survived the Holocaust, felt a responsibility to return to Israel to serve in the army. He saw combat in Lebanon and Gaza, and “had friends die in my arms — things you shouldn’t deal with at that age. It reminds you when things are tough that if you went through this, you can live through anything,” he says.
Missing his family, Bernstein returned to Los Angeles after his three-year military service, re-enrolled in community college, then transferred to California State University, Northridge, where he received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in special education. While there, he created an interactive computer model of a brain that was used by his professor to teach a “Brain and Behavior” class. This experience showed him the possibilities of the computer as an effective learning tool.
“We can be able in one way and disabled in another way,” Bernstein says. “What I found out about myself is that I could do things on the computer with relative ease, but I couldn’t do other things that might be easy for other people, like writing.”
This success with computers in the classroom was one of the inspirations for Bernstein to start Media Enrichment Academy. The idea behind it is to identify these strengths and develop them. It just so happens that, in his experience, many young people with special needs have qualities that lend themselves to multimedia work.
“My feeling is that many autistic kids learn about the world visually. They’re trying to piece together facts, and a lot of the time they do it visually,” Bernstein says, adding, “They can hyperfocus. … They’re very detail-oriented.”
Students come away from the experience with improved self-esteem as well as an increased interest and aptitude for learning, he says.
At LAUSD — he’s taught at Mulholland Middle School, Portola Middle School and now Vista Middle School in Van Nuys — Bernstein has used multimedia approaches to help students improve their reading comprehension. In conjunction with a USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism program, his students worked on a project called “I Poem,” mixing images, sounds and text about themselves in one-minute shorts.
“That year we created seven projects, each more difficult and complex,” Bernstein says. “At the end of the year, my students were invited to show their movies at USC, and when we tested them, their reading comprehension was way up.”
Three years ago, Bernstein started a nonprofit called Exceptional Minds for young adults on the spectrum who need special vocational training post-high school.
“For individuals who are more disabled — individuals that cannot wing it until people learn what great artists they are or what great individuals they are — the idea is that putting them in a typical work environment is setting them up for failure,” he says.
Bernstein founded Exceptional Minds to create a studio where these individuals could thrive, be productive and learn valuable work skills in a supportive environment.
“The idea was to develop a studio of artists that are disabled that are not judged on their disability but on the work that they can produce,” he says.
Although he’s no longer involved with Exceptional Minds, Bernstein continues to work full time as a teacher while operating Media Enrichment Academy.
“Media Enrichment Academy started with a vision. The idea was to have something fun and motivating to teach skills that maybe one day would turn into something more,” he says. “I never imagined it would be what it is right now, and I couldn’t be more proud of what we have accomplished in the last five years.”