Amherst Regional taps new space to shape life-skills program for special needs students
Amherst Regional High School student Jacob Demling uses a vacuum, one of the living skills learned in a suite of rooms devoted to the Pathways to Independence Program at the school. Purchase photo reprints »
Amherst Regional High School student Alexandra Kirwan loads dishes in the kitchen of the Pathways to Independence Program at the school where a suite of rooms is devoted to teaching living skills. Purchase photo reprints »
Amherst Regional High School student William Woods Duffy works on a computer in the school's Pathways to Independence Program where a suite of rooms is devoted to teaching living skills. Purchase photo reprints »
Amherst Regional High School student Ethan Floquet makes a bed, one of the living skills learned in a suite of rooms devoted to the Pathways to Independence Program at the school. Purchase photo reprints »
Amherst Regional High School student Karen Williams practices doing laundry, one of the living skills learned in a suite of rooms devoted to the Pathways to Independence Program at the school. Purchase photo reprints »
Amherst Regional High School special education teacher Kim Kretzer. Purchase photo reprints »
The cups in the muffin pan should be filled half way, Rachel Keyworth explains to the three students sitting around a small kitchen table.
She indicates the half mark with her finger.
Jacob Demling, Karen Williams and Alexandra Kirwan, three of 16 students with significant developmental disabilities in this Amherst Regional High School class, have already taken turns pouring the mix into a bowl, cracking and adding the eggs and water and stirring. They are in the home stretch of baking a batch of chocolate chip muffins. The students are in the kitchen of a newly refurbished area of the high school that has been carved into a suite of classrooms, therapy rooms and an apartment-like setup for teaching life skills. In addition to the kitchen, there are a bedroom and a bathroom/laundry room.
Demling is first to begin scooping batter into his row of four spaces in the 12-muffin pan. By cup three, his mixture is reaching close to the top.
Are we filling them half way or all the way? Keyworth gently prods. Keyworth, a student volunteer from Springfield College, is leading the activity with the help of two other volunteers who have each taken two or three of the students, along with their paraprofessional aides, to other tables set up with baking materials.
The high schoolers range from those who can read, to others who are non-verbal, needing prompts to communicate via an iPad. Some have autism, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy or other conditions that severely impair their learning.
Each group is approaching the task differently, depending on abilities.
“Half,” Demling answers Keyworth’s question and proceeds, controlling his pouring just a bit.
Kirwan is up next and she begins filling hers to their tip tops.
“Alexandra, you have to leave some batter for Karen, too,” Keyworth says. “Let’s look at these. Are they half full?”
Everyone agrees they are not. There’s not much left in the bowl when it’s Williams’ turn so Keyworth shows her how to spoon batter from the over-filled cups into her rows.
While she is working Demling is following the next instruction, which is to pick up an iPad and interview Kirwan about the muffin-making experience.
Do you think the group worked well together? he asks.
“I am very disappointed in Karen because she took some of my chocolate chips.” Kirwan answers, speaking haltingly and smiling.
This is the first class of the day, which is devoted to using the life skills rooms renovated over the summer to teach these students how to live as independently as they can. In addition, throughout the school day, the younger students go on to academic classes, and the older ones take electives, go to outside or in-school jobs or to a class at the University of Massachusetts or Westfield State University.
Then, most are back for vocational and social skills instruction. The program, called Pathways to Independence, is run by two teachers — at the moment it’s just Kim Kretzer but a second teacher is being hired — a speech pathologist, shared program coordinator, behavior analyst, occupational therapist and physical therapist, and 14 paraprofessionals.
In the apartment-like rooms, the students can learn basic housekeeping, such as preparing food, making the bed, vacuuming and doing laundry. They can also use the space to do work for their in-school jobs, such as laundering aprons and smocks from ARHS cooking and art classes.
State law allows these students to stay in school until they meet the requirements for high school graduation or turn 22. After that, they generally receive vocational and other services. The high school life skills instruction becomes more focused for those over 18. Work to shape this new learning space cost the district $205,000 as part of the school department’s capital plan.
The idea to do it came from school officials who saw that a large number of students would need such training coming up through the elementary grades, said School Superintendent Maria Geryk.
“It’s a different way of thinking about integrating people with significant disabilities into the world,” she said. “It’s really important that we focus on the strengths of our students and create opportunities for them to become part of our community. In a lot of ways we didn’t do a great job with this population of students in the past.”
In each of the living areas, most items or pieces of equipment are accompanied by prominent labels. Dishwasher, Sink, Cabinet, Microwave, Bed, Lamp, Washer, Dryer.
Among the groups baking muffins the day I was there, some were able to read each line of instruction aloud as they went and got basic lessons in math — how many cups does each student get to fill if they are divided up evenly? What is the difference between half and whole?
Others spent time, with varying degrees of assistance, picking out pictures on an iPad to match the words expressing their actions as they prepared the muffins.
The program for each student is built around what is called person-center planning, said Kretzer. “We meet with the student, the family and anyone involved in that student’s life to help them figure out their vision for the future.”
That is, where the student is headed when school is no longer an option. What does the individual like to do? What jobs or activities might be suitable? Speech and language therapy and social and vocational skills training are worked in around that. Speech therapy, for example, is done alongside students’ activities or lessons, said therapist Catherine Manicke. Besides working with students on their language use in conjunction with the baking that day, Manicke headed out to a local farm to accompany one student spending some school time working there. Manicke guides the student in communicating with the supervisor, asking for help and getting along with co-workers.
“That can be very challenging for these students,” she said.
Later, back in the classroom, students and therapists work on these skills in small groups and through videotaped role playing: How to make good eye contact, how to project voices, how to read body language. “These are all subtle things that are important for communication,” said Manicke.
While the students in ninth and 10th grade take academic classes in order to take the required MCAS, in many cases an alternative version, by grade 11 the shift is toward independent living and vocational skills. The courses they take outside of their suite are elective, such as the introduction to dance class that has proven to be life-changing for 18-year-old Jalil Cruz, who has cerebral palsy.
Focus on strengths
Cruz, who uses a motorized wheelchair and struggles to speak, has become a shining example of how integrated the students have become at Amherst Regional, Kretzer said.
She took me over to the dance studio where he was preparing for an evening performance with the school’s more advanced dance theater ensemble. There he sat, smiling broadly, surrounded by a group, including teacher Tracy Vernon.
Vernon, who calls him superstar, says that to satisfy Cruz’s desire to perform, she invited him to join the advanced dance group onstage this fall, since his class has no performance component.
The result, after one rehearsal, she said, was astonishing. The students worked their dance around his chair, and as he moved from one group to the next, he controlled the start and stop of the action.
At the end, there were so many people surrounding his wheelchair, giving him high fives that Kretzer, a member of the audience, couldn’t squeeze her way in to offer congratulations.
“It was the best time of my life,” he said, recalling the night.
Kretzer said she has seen a change in him, which she attributes to the experience.
“People would think that it’s crazy to take a student with cerebral palsy who is in a wheelchair and can barely move his body and put him in an advanced dance class, but he has gotten so much out of it.”
Those moments of being in control, and enjoying the camaraderie with fellow dancers, have made Cruz seem more comfortable in his wheelchair, she said. “His sense of where his chair is in space is improving and it has to do with him being in that class.”
The experience, Kretzer said, also has motivated other students in her class to try new activities. One, she said, wants to take a dance class, too. Another wants to try acting.
“I feel like students with significant disabilities are often looked at through the deficit model,” she said. “They can’t do this and they can’t do that.” The focus of Amherst Regional’s program, she said, is on their strengths. “Once you stop and get to know them, each one brings so much of their own individual personalities to the world. There is much more to them than their disabilities.”
Kretzer is new to Amherst this year. After a career working with severely disabled people, mainly in non-academic settings, she taught special needs students in South Hadley for four years before taking the job here.
What she found when she arrived thrilled her. “This is the first time where I’ve had the support and the resources to develop programming for students with significant needs.”
What Amherst provides is unusual for a public school, she said. “Everything is aligned for this to be an incredibly amazing program,” she said, “and we are just in the very beginning of it.”
The relationship with the Springfield College students, who come twice a week to lead recreational activities, started with her in South Hadley and she hopes to make it permanent here. Being just slightly older than the students in the program, she said, allows the college kids to act as mentors. Other outside groups, such as Whole Children, a social skills group, the Stavros Center for Independent Living and the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority also regularly work with Kretzer’s class.
The new space — now filling with the aroma of muffins baking — gives the program resources to meet the state’s increasing focus on transition planning for disabled students. The goal, she said, is to provide a seamless move from high school to the adult world for them with the connections already made to the job or agency they will be with. “What Amherst is doing here is very forward-thinking.”
Debra Scherban can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.