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Park School is a public therapeutic learning environment for students with disabilities, where resourceful, creative teachers work with and support 61 students ages three to 22.
In addition to training and experience, teachers rely on peer teamwork, frequent communication with parents and an environment that values flexibility and adaptation. Every day they work with students to address learning challenges such as cognitive impairment, autism, hearing and vision disabilities, as well as communication, sensory and behavioral impairments.
“We’re always adapting, using different approaches to meet the very diverse needs of our students,” said Elena Garfield, an occupational therapist and a 15-year veteran at Park School. “Much of what we do and achieve is a team effort.”
Garfield points to collaborative work they have done with a student who is deaf and blind. Garfield has known the student since he was a preschooler at Park. Now in his late teens, the student is a wheelchair user, with limited means of communication.
Giving choices shows respect
Garfield said that over nearly two and a half years she and a group of teachers experimented with ways to more effectively communicate with this student. After much tinkering, the group spearheaded a unique communication system customized specifically for this student. They created a tactile selection board with movable parts.
The plastic-covered board easily rests on the student’s wheelchair tray and contains tactile objects representing core words targeted for this student. After much training, the student learned to associate each tactile object with a variety of choices. Even without vision and hearing, he can now communicate a whole range of choices and preferences by selecting the tactile object that represents a particular thing or activity he chooses to experience.
He chooses a scratchy pad when he wants to explore sensory experiences. A particular textured cloth is associated with the same cloth-covered activity bins. After he communicates that he wants something from those bins, he might select a soft and squishy tactile object, indicating he’d like to interact with a stuffed toy or maybe a soft ball. If he selects the small plastic wheels, he’s ready to move to another location. There’s also a tactile cue to “tell” the teacher that the student wants more choices than the ones presented.
The tactile board has proved to be an expansive tool that lets educators continuously add tactile items to help the student expand his options – and his world. “He has come far in his learning, and we are all proud of him,” Garfield said.
Giving choices demonstrates respect and acknowledges that each of person is unique. Park teachers and specialists Melissa Ebbole, Katlynn O’Hara, Manisha Jain, Morgan Hendon and Jennifer Flaxman worked with Garfield to develop the tool.
Flaxman, a long-time Park special education teacher, is now a transition coordinator. Park students between 18 and 22 are eligible for the Transition Program, which strives to prepare them to leave the public school system. The Transition curriculum focuses on life skills training and vocational services support to create a bridge from school-based instruction to community living and work and volunteer alternatives.
Before COVID-19 became a harsh reality, Park’s Transition students learned and practiced vocational and life skills by working and volunteering in the community. “For a couple of hours a day, our Transition students worked on campus at Northwestern’s cafeteria,” said Flaxman. “Students did tasks like cleaning the cafeteria tables, then were able to eat lunch in the college cafeteria. It was clear they benefited from that independence.”
Because Northwestern and other work sites haven’t been available because of COVID-19, Flaxman and her teammates moved onto plan B: developing and overseeing a store inside Park School that would become a valuable training environment for students of all ages.
“After the store was created in Park, we gave students the job of naming it,” said Flaxman, “and that’s how we got the name Snack Shack. We sell chips, pretzels, granola bars and other healthy snacks, as well as beverages, and items such as gift cards, pencils and stickers. Because some of our students have limited vision or are blind, the store even sells scented stickers and some of the menus are in Braille.”
The Transition students find lots of skill-building opportunities when they work in the store. They clean and stock the shelves with merchandise and use math and communication skills to work the cash register. They pour and serve coffee and tea, and converse with the classrooms of customers who visit the store regularly.
Another work skill project is the traveling Coffee Cart, which is equipped with boom box music and makes rounds throughout the school twice weekly. Transition students from O’Hara and Mark Herkovich’s classrooms sell and serve the beverages to teachers and keep the cart stocked and tidy.
David Cosby, another Transition teacher, has his students maintain and deliver a well-supplied Kitchen Cart to classrooms that want to do cooking activities. The cart has a robust amount of kitchen items: pots and pans, measuring cups and spoons, a hot plate, blender, hand-mixer and toaster oven, as well some adaptive equipment that enables more students to participate. Classrooms sign up to have the cart delivered, but Cosby’s students have more than delivery and pick-up duties. They also clean the cart and all the kitchen items and repack everything for the next cooking gig.
Transition program students also do small chores to help neighborhood businesses. Using a big blue bin on sturdy wheels, students pick up recycled paper and plastics from Evanston Lumber and return them to Park School for city collection once a week. They also lend a hand to Sher-Main Grill by folding their printed paper menus.
When the threat of COVID-19 subsides, Transition students will enjoy returning to Northwestern and resume shopping trips to the neighborhood Jewel store, where they purchase cooking ingredients and baking supplies needed for hosting popular school bake sales.
Teachers at Park School know that all these experiences help build social and conversational skills, self-advocacy abilities and confidence – steps on the road to reaching students’ full potential.