Recognizing the Special Education Department


Everyday, the Special Education Department stays busy teaching their students basic life skills with a mixture of modified academics to prepare them for life outside of high school. Life skills teachers teach students cognitive tasks essential for day to day functioning such as cleaning and cooking. They work hard at creating a comfortable environment so their students can express themselves and learn effectively. 

Most mornings, life skills students will do research assignments on what they’ve gathered from CNN. Afterward, they study whatever subject is planned such as art, vocabulary, chemistry or social studies. 

“We start with our regular core assignments which are tailored to what everyone can do, and then some of the students go off to their electives,” Special Education teacher Amanda Graf said. “I also like to throw in independent living skills throughout the day as well such as shredding, filling, cleaning, independent transportation, emotional intelligence, cooking and practicing social skills,” she said.

The day to day in the class involves watching Youtube news clips, completing tasks around the classroom and school, and finishing school work and various hands-on activities. However, sometimes students have their own ideas for what they should be learning, and life skills teachers are happy to adapt in those moments.

“Our students love watching CNN and knowing what’s going on in the outside world, so that’s how we start our day,” Paraprofessional Jennifer Palacios said. “Our students are always eager to learn new things. Sometimes I’ll teach what I have on my agenda, and they’ll ask me if they can learn something different, or as they refer to it, something ‘outside of the box,’” she said. 

One life skills student in particular, junior Benit Butler practices day-to-day functions by accepting appointments from teachers to work on specific chores, like laundry, cleaning or organizing.

“The teachers will come and bring in dirty towels to allow Benit to clean them or will make a cleaning appointment for him to sweep the classroom,” Palacios said. 

Hands-on tasks like these are the effective ways the special education teachers teach job skills and prepare the students to be independent while normalizing at-home and work duties. Each task performed is based on each student’s needs.

“For the Special Education Department, what I want people to understand is that everyone learns differently whether they’re classified special ed or not,” Special Ed Department Chair Crystal Young said. “I encourage my staff to really get to know their students by being hands on, to learn which way their student learns. Once the teachers make that connection and understand the way their students learn, we get results,” she said.

Special Education Teacher Tina Molinar takes this idea of individualizing personally and implements it in her teaching.

“You have to tap into the child’s learning ability and capability because they have limitations. Therefore, we have to find activities that suit their cognitive need for learning,” Molinar said.

For junior Roxanne Hayes, her experience in the department has been truly beneficial.

“In this class I get to have help on things that are hard for me to work on, and I likely need,” Hayes said. Hayes further expressed that her teachers do a good job of making sure she comprehends and has everything she needs.

One other way the Special Ed teachers make classes lively is by making sure everyone has a chance to simply enjoy each other’s company.

“I love coming in to help my teachers when they need me. I also like comforting and making cards for teacher birthdays or teachers who are out sick,” junior Sarai Sinclaire said. “My favorite part of the day is hugging all my teachers,” she said.

Both students and staff benefit daily from shared humor and compassion expressed through jokes and acts of kindness. 

“Their outlook on life is so different and clever at the same time. When they comment on certain situations, it makes me ponder and laugh because I didn’t necessarily think about it like that. It’s times like those that I consider my brightest points of the day,” said Graf. 

The Life Skills Department feels that it stands apart from the rest.

“The bond and respect from the staff to students is what is so distinct about us. When we bring our students through our hallway, the teachers all acknowledge and make them feel comfortable,” Paraprofessional Rashon Hollis said. “If at any time something is missing, we’re able to get it figured out through the communication from the students because of the shared connection and comfortability. The teachers here put in hard work, time and effort for their students to efficiently be able to care for them,” he said.

When the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic hit, it put a strain on the Life Skills Department both socially and financially. It also put restrictions on certain activities that were common pre-Covid, such as field trips and physical interaction. 

“For our students it was difficult for them to adjust to virtual learning, because most of them are visual and kinesthetic learners,” Graf said. 

Many in the department feel that there are many things that could be improved upon. They want more equipment for their rooms and training for their teachers. They also sometimes feel forgotten as a department.

“At times we come out of pocket to supply our students with the things they need,” Palacios said. “Also I feel we could get more recognition. The teachers at our school work hard and I know that, but so do we, and at times I feel like we can be overlooked as a department,” Palacios said.

The Life Skills Department has become a big family who provides so much for its students. Preparing students for the responsibilities of the outside world is a main priority but so is ensuring students create relationships here in the school beyond the Spec Ed realm.

“I ask for people around the school to be more understanding of our students. When you see them, wave. Ask how they’re doing. It makes them feel good when they’re truly seen and acknowledged because they love interaction,” Palacios said.