Showcasing strides in special education


BRATTLEBORO — The Intensive Services Program at the middle school and high school recently held its 10th annual showcase, highlighting student progress as well as a historical perspective.

Friends, family, BAMS and BUHS faculty gathered in the high school's multi-purpose room on Wednesday, June 8, to listen to some student success stories. The students sat in the front of the room with a slideshow behind them, summarizing their year's accomplishments. Some students spoke for themselves, while others were assisted by an aid. Regardless, all had a story to share.

"The annual showcase provides an opportunity for students to be proud of their progress and accomplishments in a public forum; for them it is really their time shine and be included in a way that is not normally afforded them," said Kathy Thielen, a program teacher for Intensive Services at BAMS and BUHS.

The program provides services for students who have both physical and cognitive issues to contend with. It includes a functional life skills curriculum, which includes a base of the student's needs for physical and occupational therapy, speech and vision, and a strong emphasis on social skills building.

Thielen has been a Intensive Services teacher at the middle school and high school for 11 years. She spearheaded this showcase 10 years ago, when she simply asked her students (some accompanied by an aid) to stand up for three minutes and communicate the highlights from their year. While Thielen says she did not originally anticipate that the showcase would become annual, it has become a tradition rooted in the program. Having been involved in the showcase and program for several years, she noted a few changes she has seen.

"Over the years the theme remains the same that we want the kids to highlight their progress, but we've certainly shifted into a digital age. We've done Powerpoints, Movie Maker, live demonstrations and more recently we've done websites," said Thielen.

One high school student in the program, Chase Dashnaw, impressed family and friends by showcasing several of his skills, such as demonstrating his presentation on the website he made through Weebly. Chase said his interests include volleyball and bad mitten, and he noted that his stamina, balance and participation have improved from when he first entered the program. He also wowed the crowd with his understanding of the technicalities of a camera such as panning, zooming, back lighting, framing and editing. Lastly, he showed a video from Tech Ed where he made a sign for Thielen in wood shop. He presented the personalized sign at last Wednesday's showcase.

While the students' accomplishments varied in their range of low to high functioning, no matter the ability demonstrated, pride was written across the faces of many family members of students at the showcase. When it was eight-grader Tim Galdamez's turn to present, some of his family and supporters pulled out their cameras to film his video performance. They laughed with him as he laughed, and wiped tears from their eyes during his presentation which highlighted his accomplishments in the last year.

"A lot of things Tim did last year were closely supervised, we had two people watching him, now it's just one," said Julian Murphy, Intensive Services teacher at the middle school.

Other accomplishments included his improved breakfast routine, fine motor skills, academics in math and reading and waiting his turn. Continually throughout the presentation Galdamez found it fun to blow air into the microphone and would burst out into laughter each time after he did so. The showcase attendees laughed with him.

Another middle school student, Janessa Kovacs, presented her strides with the help of her aid which included independent living skills, such as navigating Price Chopper and retrieving water for herself; pre-braille skills such as tactile finger play and determining left from right; communication skills and participation in physical activities.

"[Kovacs'] first year here she would not stay in gym; this year she's really blossomed," said Jeannie Leavitt, an Intensive Services teacher at the showcase.

Another video in Kovacs' presentation showed her playfully jumping and splashing around in a local pool. Showcase attendees smiled and applauded Janessa at the end of the short clip.

The final eighth-grade student, Shannon Styles, smiled through most of her presentation and answered questions accordingly that were asked by one of the Intensive Services teachers. Intensive Services Program teacher Debbie Bozetarnik noted that the curriculum has helped Styles become more independent. For example, as part of her cafeteria routine she now gets her meal on her own and punches in her student ID without assistance. Styles also enjoys working on her iPad, which helps her communicate. It was highlighted that at the beginning of the year she would answer "yes" or "no" to a question without understanding the question, but at the showcase, she proved that she can now differentiate the two. She has also improved her social, fine motor and cooking skills.

When asked what is her favorite thing to cook, Styles excitedly responded, "french fries."

The last two presentations were around high school students Katelyn Phomnath and Joy Young. Phomnath is in 10th grade and this will be her last year in the program as she is moving to Florida, but she left with a bang, showcasing her accomplishments over the years. She has become more independent in various ways, including feeding herself, and she has also improved problem solving skills and following single step directions. Phomnath really wowed the crowd with a video that showed her getting out of her wheel chair and moving around some obstacles on the floor in order to retrieve a red cup.

Perhaps the real veteran was Young, a "super senior" who participated in her seventh showcase on Wednesday afternoon and an Intensive Service teacher noted she has "come a long way." Young has become more independent through the middle school and high school programs and has attended outside classes such as art, ILS, reading, cooking, sewing, and computer. A four-minute video was played at the end of Joy's presentation detailing her journey from beginning to end at the Intensive Services program.

No matter what the stride, each student's improvements were noted Wednesday afternoon. Thielen thanked the faculty and staff for their dedication to their students and highlighted some of the specifics of the program that have helped the students reach some of their goals and beyond.

Thielen noted a few learning styles the program incorporates, such as the Circle of Courage, a Native American philosophy originally used to assist "at-risk" youth, focusing on mastery, belonging, generosity, independence. Another concept the Intensive Services Program uses is Beyond these 4 walls, beyond these 4 years, where faculty work to envision the future for students and set long-term goals. Next, there is the main class, where they focus on independent living skills with four primary categories of home, school, work, leisure and overall focus of community.

"Meeting a student where they are at and bringing them forward," said Thielen, further describing the program. "If we are doing our job well, then we in essence should be working ourselves out of a job!"

Thielen also noted the practice of "process over product," which involves differentiated instruction, single activity and technology access. Lastly, she mentioned inclusion, which she feels is meaningful, beneficial and relevant.

"Inclusion is very important, however we look at it a little differently," said Thielen. "For us, it's this idea of meaningful, beneficial and relevant. To that end, we're looking for kids to be involved in the context of the classroom, the campus, as well as the community at large."

Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275


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