For the Exceptional Services classes at the middle- and high-school levels, it has been like trying to teach swimming lessons in a bathtub. And while the resources are coming together, they still need a number of supplies for classes to help prepare students for success after school is done.
Exceptional Services kicked off classes four years ago when the middle school and high school campuses were still combined, said program specialist Abigail Himlie. Now, nearly a full year after the middle school program split and moved to the new campus at Maricopa Wells with a pair of rooms specifically designed to provide hands-on educational opportunities for special needs students, Maricopa High is struggling through the growing pains of construction and a lack of suitable space for these students.
Himlie said as the district has grown, the number of Exceptional Services students has grown even faster, requiring the district to double the number of teaching staff and classes offered this year at both Maricopa Wells and Maricopa High School. While the middle school’s class has a washer/dryer and kitchen that allows students the ability to perform hands-on life skills so crucial to their development, Maricopa High has gone without until now.
In working with Principal Jeff Kleck and Exceptional Services Director Bobby Santillan,
Himlie has negotiated the use of a teacher’s lounge on the old middle school campus for next semester so as to give her students at least a partial kitchen in which they can prepare meals as part of their daily classwork.
“These kids have life skills goals in their IEP (Individualized Education Program) so we need to teach them now,” Himlie said.
In the current classroom structure, math and reading can be taught, but giving students opportunities for the hands-on training they need has been in short supply.
“They don’t learn if it’s not hands-on,” Exceptional Services teacher Sheri Guthrie said of the bulk of her students. “They don’t have abstract reasoning to grasp things they don’t physically do for the most part.”
While a new temporary classroom is on the way for Guthrie and fellow high school Exceptional Services teacher Judy Kenny in January, garnering supplies for that classroom remain the responsibility of Himlie. She has put out the call to fellow staff – some of whom, like Food Services Director Suzette Moe, have answered by donating a number of items – and the community for the items students need, including kitchen supplies, cooking ingredients, non-perishable food items and small appliances. For a full list of needs or to find out how to donate, contact Himlie at (520) 568-8100.
Himlie is also pushing for dedicated space for the growing program similar to what was constructed at Maricopa Wells as the high school moves forward with the construction of new buildings on campus. It is with the thought that the Exceptional Services classes are attempting to teach many of their students the tools they need to succeed on their own – cooking, cleaning, making a budget – that Himlie is working to form a transition team that will oversee working with businesses to give students jobs in the community and helping them move forward from a school setting to one where they can flourish on their own.
Himlie said not giving these students the tools they need to learn both life and workplace skills throws a huge roadblock in front of their desire to achieve goals in and out of the classroom.
“I think that school-to-life is the most important thing we can do with these kids,” she said. “It’s very difficult to find transition programs... especially in Maricopa. To try to get them work with these skills in as many different places is huge.”
Himlie has already seen some successes – a former student went to work at a Cold Stone Creamery in Casa Grande and an idea to use a Nintendo Wii to improve hand-eye coordination for some of her students has shown positive results – but nothing will be able to replace having a fully-stocked, properly outfitted classroom when it comes to meeting her students’ needs.
“We’ve had to be really creative. We know the facilities are coming but we’ve just had to do what we can.”