Familial relationships develop in support education classes

The common goal of student success impacts student-teacher bonds within the program…

Beena Raghavendran | Staff WriterFamily. There’s no other term for the relationship between students in Mason High School ’s Support Education program and their intervention specialists and paraprofessionals, according to Intervention Specialist Hakim Oliver.

Oliver, who spent three years working in the Community Education Opportunity (CEO) room in Z1 (home to students with Down syndrome), is now an intervention specialist (formerly known as a support educator, and now works with several students in a classroom setting) in the Z2 study skills classroom; he said the members of the Support Education department have a familial bond.

“[The support education department is] almost like an extension of the family at school,” Oliver said. “[The students are] kind of like our babies here, in that we [have to] take care of them. …We communicate things that we do to the family, [which] tell[s] us what works for them at home, [and]…we both share ideas.”

The Facts

Families of students with special needs are very happy with Mason’s support education program, Mason High School parents said. The Mason City Schools Support Education department is “committed to the success of each child,” according to the Mason City Schools website; this is why a family-like atmosphere develops, Oliver said.

MHS has created a C1 Social Communication School Fundamentals (SCSF) classroom for autistic students, the CEO rooms in Z2 for students with Down syndrome and study skills rooms around the building for students with other learning disabilities. Mason High School and Middle School Support Education Supervisor Jody Bergman said the different ways students at Mason learn best call for the variety types of special needs programs.

“There needs to be…a big continuum of services — a range for different needs,” Bergman said. “Despite the fact that [students] might have a learning issue, they can certainly get [the] support that they need in order to be successful and show what they do know.”

The Student/Teacher Relationships

Oliver said the program’s common goal of helping the students succeed, whether they’re in his classroom or not, results in a familial bond.

“We’re all here to help the kids, so [we’ll do] whatever it takes to get the job done,” Oliver said. “We’ll do it even if it means that we’re going to help take care of kids that aren’t ours — because they’re all ours.”

Freshman and sophomore CEO Intervention Specialist Melissa Courtney (whose classroom is in Z1) has experience treating students as her own, she said: her son has Fragile X syndrome (a change in the X chromosome, resulting in one of the most common causes of mental impairments), which prompted her to become an intervention specialist. Courtney was on the board of the Mason Association to Support Kids (ASK), which helps families learn the skills to work with their schools to help their children succeed, according to the ASK website; she said forming relationships with parents through that the organization and her own dedication to the field contributed to the new perspective she has for her students.

“When I think of my students, I think, ‘How would I want my son’s teacher to be working with him?’” Courtney said. “I always come back from that perspective. …I have a heart for these kids, and these families, because I live their lives. …[And] just because I, myself, am in the disability community, I knew some of the parents before, which [made it] easier [to come in as a teacher], in some ways.”

Courtney said she thinks that as a result of her classroom’s hands-on learning style, a stronger bond is formed between herself and her students than what may be experienced in a general education classroom. Her students cook food from recipe books after a trip to Kroger every Thursday, reinforcing the interactive aspect.

“Other students may be able to learn just from textbooks, but my room is different because we actually do [what the textbook teaches],” Courtney said. “Not only do I go through it with them on paper, but we do it, [so]…our interactions are much closer.”

Freshman Kendra Denlinger, whose primary teacher is Courtney, said she agrees that the CEO room is a very comfortable place to be.

“[The room makes me] feel kind of happy; it makes me calm,” Denlinger said.

Intervention Specialist Susan Rosselott (whose study skills room is in B3) said the bond between she and her students is so strong because she has set up her classroom as a secure, comforting place at school.

“Whatever is bugging [my students] in the hallway, or in the classroom, or anywhere else — [they] can come in here and [they]’re fine,” Rosselott said. “[The study skills room just]…becomes their home away from home. [It’s] like we tell them the first week of school: they’ll never find another person in this building that will have their back more than we will, outside of their parents. Because that’s what we do.”

Another contributing factor to this close relationship is having students in the classroom for a longer time period than in a general education classroom, according to Intervention Specialist Kami Smith. Smith, who teaches in the SCSF room in C1 (for students with autism), said that the relationships formed in the CEO and study skills rooms are different than those formed in her classroom because her students are non-verbal, but similar to those in CEO room in that her students take all their classes in her room only.

“We have these kids all day long, so we get to know them and they get to know us,” Smith said. “We form [a] relationship right away, [because] we’re working with them all day long and we work really closely [with them]. They’re non-verbal, so we have to learn to read their body language and their individual cues. …They rely on us for a lot of their personal needs, so that relationship is fairly strong.”

The Family Connection

A part of the teachers’ balanced relationships with the students is keeping close ties with students’ families, according to parent Lisa Heim. Heim is the mother of is junior Calvin Heim, a student who has been in the Support Education program since preschool. She said that through communication and wide relationships, Mason City Schools do a great job of reinforcing her family’s goals for Calvin.

“Every [Individualized Education Program] (a plan that communicates goals to administrators, teachers, families and students) we’ve done has said something about [our goal for him]: he can do anything, it’s just a matter of helping him do it and find[ing] the way for him to do it,” Heim said. “[That’s] the big thing that we’ve always emphasized, and what I appreciate about Mason.”

Freshman Kelsey McNamara, a student in the Support Education program, said MHS’s adaptability to learning styles has let her learn in the way that is most beneficial to her and her strengths — a positive change from other schools she has attended.

“Some people are so stubborn that they won’t understand that it’s my way [of learning], where [my current paraprofessional (the in-class intervention aide)] was more willing to say, ‘Oh, okay, Kelsey, we’re going to do it your way,’” Kelsey said. “[I say to them,] ‘Let me tell you what I need so you guys can be successful. Let me show you what I need; let me teach you [what I need].’”

Linda McNamara, Kelsey’s mother, said she agrees that working with different paraprofessionals every year results in the healthiest student-paraprofessional relationship.

“[Kelsey] has a different aide this year [from] last year, and that’s really the best way to do it, because otherwise those boundaries (between when the relationship becomes too strong and when the relationship is too weak) start to blur,” Linda said. “For the child’s sake, it’s important that the person change, so that [he or she] learn[s] how to deal with different people.”

The Long-Term Impact

The consistency of the Support Education program for its students doesn’t end with the final bell of the school day: Paraprofessional Holly Parker said Support Education students have other people inside and outside of school that impact their lives as well. Teachers’ collaborations with the different people in students’ lives help the students succeed, she said.

“We all work together,” Parker said. “[Achieving student success] takes a village. …There might be twenty people (parents, guardians, therapists, counselors) involved in one student’s life.…We all just work together so that they get the most out of their daily education and their [day]; it might not just be academics, it could be extracurriculars [too, which gets us involved in a student’s after-school life].”

And when the goal of graduation and success is met for these students, the reward is bittersweet, Courtney said. While she said she will be overjoyed that the hard work has paid off, it will be hard for her to detach from the long relationships with them.

“[The students’ junior years], they’ll be next door [to me, but] what will be hard is when they eventually graduate — that, I can’t even imagine,” Courtney said. “By that time, I would have known them possibly six years, because they’re able to stay in school [un]til they’re 22.”

And beyond the family-like bond students and their Support Education teachers share, Oliver said the department consistently works to achieve their number-one goal: success.

“At the end of the day, with the laughs and the craziness and the academics, we get it done,” Oliver said.