Monday, February 21, 2011

Helping Students with Special Needs Achieve Independent Life Skills

What do I know about public education?

S.A.I.L. alumnus, Alysha, works with pre-school
students while being taped for an upcoming episode
of Classroom Close-up, NJ
I know that I received one. I know that the political, social, and financial issues involving public education are intense, complicated, and oft-debated. And I know that even though I'm more than half-way through my fifth season with Classroom Close-up, NJ, a show about public education, that hanging out with teachers and students a few days a month hasn't made me any sort of expert on the topic. Still, the story we taped in Piscataway last week got me thinking about the things that a lot of people probably don't realize the public education systems provides.

S.A.I.L (Students Achieving Independent Life Skills) is a program that helps students with cognitive disabilities ages 18-21 transition from the traditional school environment to the world of work. A key component of the program is a vocations course that helps students learn how to achieve gainful employment through a combination of class work and actual work site experiences. On the day of taping we spent some time in the classroom as well as on the job with the students and faculty from the program.

Now, I do believe that anyone even remotely touched by the public education system is aware that it provides programs for students with special needs. In fact, special education is probably the single greatest differentiator between private and public education. But I also think that unless you're an educator, individual, or family directly touched by this piece of the system, you probably don't know much about what really goes on or what it takes to make it happen. You might not even know that programs like S.A.I.L. existed. Based on what I learned while taping the story, it's a complicated mix of government mandates, financial issues, and teaching resources. I also learned that Piscataway is a best-practice example of how a district is providing better services though the public education system, than are often available through the private sector (and at lower cost to taxpayers).

Yesterday, my seven-year-old daughter, Emily, was in my office asking me questions about what I was working on. I told her about the S.A.I.L story and in particular about Alysha, a young woman I met who was an alumnus of the program, now employed as an aide at a pre-school. As I tried to explain the story to her in a way she could grasp, I mentioned how it was great because schools didn't always have programs like this, how it helped these students be a part of the community, etc.

I could tell Emily got it, but then she said, "What did they used to do?"

I didn't know how to answer this. I knew that special education was a relatively modern concept. I knew that in the past, we marginalized people with disabilities. I'm sure a Google search would have turned up a thorough history of atrocities and injustices to share. Instead, I gave her a simple answer about how people with special needs used to be ignored or sent away to different schools or to live in special homes and hospitals.

Maybe I could have given a better answer, but I figured it was more important tell her how we're doing the right things now. She should know that. We all should. I hope the S.A.I.L. story will help show it to more people.