Only fifteen years ago, special education students were barely seen or heard in the average school. Classrooms were tucked away at another part of the building and students may have only been seen as they were bused in and out.
Thankfully, times have changed. Today's mainstream classrooms might include students that run the gamut from mild learning disabilities to autism and Down's Syndrome.
Instead of relegating those students to basic skills like crafts and cooking, even students with severe disabilities can now master reading and writing, plan for their future, and prepare for the employment of their dreams and attend college.
“Students today are not placed by disability, they are placed by their cognitive level,” Pauline Goolkasian, Chairman of Special Education 6-12 and Director of Student Services at Bethel High School, said.
Teacher Mark Ferrandino, new to Bethel this year, said that the idea is to identify strengths and weaknesses of each student to help them overcome challenges and develop skills. “There is no formula that works with each kid. It's like unraveling the onion, and sometimes the kids won't let you do that. Some students don't want to be in that setting. But they recognize they have some weaknesses, and part of growing up is dealing with those issues.”
Goolkasian said, “At the middle and high school level, we are seeing an increase in students with autism move through the system, and even as they reach middle and high school they need educational and social support.”
“We don't provide one on one support, we try not to do that,” Goolkasian added. “Students of all ages, backgrounds and needs, they want to be independent. Sometimes we have an aide there who will help them get from one class to another,” Pauline said, adding that when special education students are enrolled in general education, it can require some additional support to help them be successful.
“When we talk about high school, it's a whole new world; teaching them to maneuver in the hallways, a rotating schedule which is hard for many of the teachers. They need to experience difficulties but they also need success,” Goolkasian said.
Technology has offered students with special needs many advantages. “It is astonishing on a number of levels. On the high school level, we used to have to deal with certain physical restrictions. Handwriting was difficult for some students and now those who have cognitive ability can now do really well with computers. Initially, carrying around a lap top was not cool, but now we have iPads. Communication and speech used to be such a big issue, now its not because they can type it out. In all of the essential classes, all of the students have access to lap tops.”
Not only has education changed but so have the expectations of the school, students and families. Many special ed students now go on to higher education and careers. Fran Peters is a transition specialist for students who will continue into college or work. Peters's community based program started in 2005.
“We transition the kids in their junior and senior years. We have speakers that come in from the Danbury Womens Center who teach the kids about conflict resolution, healthy relationships, and internet safety. Our program strengthens their employment skills. We identify their areas of interest, and we help them with resume writing, personal presentation, effective interview techniques, and community service opportunities. We even have job coaches.”
Special education students can remain in their high schools until they are 21 years old, allowing them to continue to hone their skills. “By the time students leave us they are set for training programs, jobs, and college,” Peters said.
“When I first started, there was a girl in the program who wanted to become a certified nurse assistant. The case worker and I worked to help her get her certification. They made accommodations for her, and she was able to become certified, and she was hired by Bethel Health Care,” Peters said.
“We get these kids in internships and if they do a good job they get hired. We have kids that have hidden disabilities and some that may even have Downs syndrome. One young man saw a posting for a job in a kitchen, and he applied and got the internship. He was interviewed and he got the job. He started part time and went full time,” Peters said.
For people who are interested in learning more about college choices for students with disabilities, Sharon Brennan, Higher Education Consultant and Director of Admissions and Enrollment Management Emeritus, Southern Connecticut State University is hosting a one night workshop. The class, specifically designed for parents, will focus on the transition processes and navigating colleges for students with disabilities.
Denise Howe, co-president, Bethel Special Education PTO, is helping with that program, and is the mother of a son with Down's Syndrome. “You really want to find a college that has those resources and Sharon shows you tiers of schools that are available for different levels of abilities.”
Howe said that she is hopeful that her son with Downs Syndrome will be able to go to community college. “I feel lucky to be in this town where people care so much about these kids.”
The program is entitled "Planning for Transition: Empowering Students with Learning Disabilities and their Parents in the College Transition Process", Monday, March 12, 2012, 7:00pm – 8:30pm, Bethel High School Media Center
See the attached flyer for more information.