I’d like to share my recent experience of “Walking in the Shoes” with a student in our Life Skills program. This program serves our students who have moderate to severe developmental disabilities and benefit from instruction focused on developing their transitional and job readiness. Depending on students’ specific needs, their learning plan might be focused on anything from practicing the most basic skills of self-care to building social skills and/or participating in arts and academic classes.
For this “Walking in the Shoes,” I was paired with a wonderful young man, Alex, who attends Sehome High School. One of the first things I learned was that Alex loves machines! It was fascinating to see how his mind works. You can tell it is always moving a mile a minute.
But first, a bit about our Life Skills program. The program maintains its own schedule within the high school’s larger master schedule. Our Life Skills staff are incredibly dedicated and creative, working hard within our system to give these teenagers as many meaningful social and academic experiences as possible. It was magical to see how they made it all work together so seamlessly. Throughout the day, I followed Alex as he engaged in a wide variety of activities. It was truly a whirlwind! I just did what I was told. 🙂
My day started when I arrived at Sehome at 7:30 a.m. and met Alex. Students in Life Skills continued to arrive all morning long, according to their individual schedules. I was moved by the strong feeling of family as the students and staff gathered to start the day. There was a warm welcome all around. Each student had a different job to do, and my attendance gave them an opportunity to practice greetings and handshakes, similar to what they might experience in a future job interview.
It was also great to see all the different ways students had to communicate – from speaking, to writing to using a computer. After a morning meeting with Kacy Keck, Alex’s teacher, to talk about our weekend and plans for the week ahead, it was time for us to attend Kevin Criez’s Applied Physics class with Tommy, another awesome student in the program. They were working on a robot that would pick up, move, and drop a golf ball. It was wonderful to observe the benefits our students in the Life Skills program gained by being in the rigorous class with a focus on their individual growth. They become more aware of our broader world and have opportunities to develop additional ways to connect with others around them. It was also heart-warming to observe students with very different abilities interact together. This is good for all of our students. At one point, Tommy glowed from the acknowledgment he received from another student in the class.
Compass Class came next. Alex loves looking at history books. (Ours was from 1999…I know, History teachers! Time for new texts! 🙂 Our 1-1 initiative should help in this endeavor.)
There was a birthday in class that day and Tommy and Alex took the lead in wishing another student happy birthday.
Then it was time to move on to lunch duties, which give our students another opportunity to build skills. Four of us, two students and two staff, worked together in the cafeteria. Each student had specific jobs and there was much singing to make the work fly by. (We rocked out to some serious Bon Jovi!) Their teacher did a great job assigning students to tasks that suited their abilities and learning needs.
I then had lunch with some other students in the program; we were all very excited about nachos…Yummm! 🙂 While at lunch, I was pleased to see the seamless, truly spectacular adult support that was in place to help our students have a positive experience.
I then had the opportunity to visit with one of our other students, someone I knew from his time at Wade King and someone who requires a high degree of adult support. I talked with him while two phenomenal staff members helped him eat his lunch. The patience, care and love shown toward this young man is remarkable. I don’t think most people in our community have an understanding of the care and work that goes into ensuring that all of our students receive an education.
After eating, I had the chance to observe this student for about 10 minutes in the sensory therapy swing. While it sounds like a toy, I could see what a difference this break in the day made for him. Staff treated him with such dignity and respect throughout the process, engaging him as a partner in his own treatment. It was an honor to be there and share this time with him. He was overflowing with laughter and joy.
I then left to join another group of students who were learning about the concept of time. We practiced reading a clock and worked on our understanding of time. Observing the different students was quite interesting – they were insightful, funny and caring. Not so different than any other classroom I suppose, but there was certainly something special going on here.
In the afternoon, we piled into a couple of vans to go to Cordata to mentor younger students in their Life Skills program. Our Sehome students worked with the younger ones around the theme of empathy. Our older kids orchestrated skits to demonstrate what empathy does and does not look like. There were, of course, some very cute moments. There were also important moments where you could see both the older and younger students benefiting from the opportunity to connect across grade levels.
After role playing, our older students sat with the younger ones to read together before we headed back to Sehome. On our way back, one of the Sehome students let me know that he wasn’t thrilled about the field trip. “Little kids take my genius power,” he said. I can’t really vouch for that, though. During our time at Cordata, there was a moment when one of the little ones needed to use a sensory vest and this same older student ended up being a great (dare I say, “genius”) partner for him.
Before the day ended, we played a little basketball in the Cordata classroom. Yowzah! Chaos erupted! Before the fun was done, there was a seizure and two ice packs … (nobody really got hurt) … and everyone was all smiles. It was great to see our students having so much fun while building their physical confidence and social skills.
My day spent walking in the shoes of a student in our Life Skills program overflowed with examples of The Promise in action. Our students were clearly cared for and respected. Like all Bellingham students, Alex and his peers were each exceptional and were being supported according to their specific needs and abilities. Our community also promises that all children will be loved. I can tell you I saw examples of this all day long.
My day with our Life Skills program also reminded me that it truly takes our whole community coming together to create such a strong, high-quality experience for our students. It is up to us (adults) to model the culture we want. Kids of all ages look to us to see how they should respond, for instance, when a student has unusual behaviors. We build our culture based on the expectations we have for ourselves and how we will treat each other. As I shadowed Alex and the program, I saw a culture built on respect and a strong welcome for students of all abilities.
Some of the students in our Life Skills program will continue into our Community Transitions program. The Transitions program provides classes, supported and independent vocational experiences, and linkages to adult services for students ages 18-21 with mild, moderate, or severe disabilities.
I extend my thanks to the students, staff, parents and partners of our Life Skills program, including the staff at Sehome and Cordata. Thank you for making this part of our educational program so rich and meaningful … and thank you for making me feel so welcome. I’d like to extend a special thanks to Kevin Johnson (KJ) for coordinating the logistics as part of his aspiring administrators program, just as Bethany Barrett did with the last Walking in the Shoes. I’d also like to acknowledge the skill, heart, and dedication of the Sehome Life Skills team. It is clear to me why they, along with their Life Skills colleagues district-wide, were recognized as part of the BPS Team of the Year last year.
Enjoy the rest of the day, everyone, and have a great weekend.