|Teacher of the Year Harrell takes students the next step
THE MID-COUNTY MEMO
Annie Harrell teaches life skills and vocational training to special education students ranging in age from 18 to 21 for the David Douglas Community Transition Program. Success came to Harrell this year after being named the 2012 Outstanding Teacher of the Year by the Oregon Association for Vocational Special Needs Personnel, a special needs division of the Oregon Association for Career and Technical Education, which promotes quality career and technical education opportunities throughout the state.
I really have a desire to work with people with disabilities, said Harrell, who first helped coach Special Olympics as a teenager. She initially envisioned running a group home for disabled adults, but found special education to be the only college degree offered in the field.
After graduating from Portland State and getting a job in a functional living classroom at David Douglas High School, she applied to the Community Transition Program during its inception, and has actively helped develop it over its seven years of existence. It is very rewarding, she said, what drew me to this 18 to 21 year old group is that we are the last ditch effort. When they leave here we are handing them off to the world and if they are not prepared then what has school done for them for the last 18 years?
Harrell concentrates on both the big picture and the end game. Our environment is unique because we are not focusing on them getting a diploma, she said, we want to know if they are going to be a successful independent adult. All of Harrell's students have graduated high school with a modified diploma, an extended diploma or a certificate of completion, alternatives offered by the state to students who have a disability or inability to complete the standard diploma in accordance with certain criteria. As one of three certified teachers for a group of 30 plus students whose challenges include autism, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities and more critical medical issues like cerebral palsy, Harrell helps create individual education plans based on each student's abilities and goals. While each student may have different motivations and handicaps, the program as a whole focuses on helping them transition to becoming functional members of the community, with an emphasis on obtaining work experience.
Many entry-level applicants find their efforts stymied by a lack of experience. When the Community Transition Program started, the district already had two student-run businesses designed to help students earn that experience while working on other skills. Students maintain Rising Sun Plants, a greenhouse from which they sell plant starts in the spring, and a coffee kiosk called Sunshine Express in the David Douglas district office. Harrell then introduced Douglas Doggies, a homemade dog treat business she had first developed while working in the high school. Manufacturing and packaging the dog treats has proved a better fit for students with less social skills or those who had trouble passing the food handler's test. CTP has also started another coffee kiosk at their location called Sunshine Depot.
The Community Transition program operates out of a district building located at 2900 S.E. 122nd Ave. Built in 1924, it houses transportation, food services, and student evaluation services as well as the transition program for the district. The location benefits Harrell's students by its proximity to both public transportation and a wealth of local businesses capable of hiring entry-level personnel. Vocational coordinator Ron Hall, who wrote Harrell's nomination letter for the award, forges relationships with local businesses and other volunteer opportunities to secure work experience for their students. Walgreens, Dollar Tree, Red Robin, Old Chicago and Hometown Buffet have all hosted students for two to three month work periods.
Recently, CTP took over the development of the Kid's Closet and Supply Depot for the school district. The Kid's Closet is an inventory of clothes on hand for students when needed, and the Supply Depot stocks donated school supplies for teachers in a pinch. The program fields orders from within the district, inventories incoming items, and distributes when needed.
CTP students generally work and attend class on separate halves of the same day. Some work in the mornings and attend class in the afternoons, and the schedule flips opposite for those employed in the afternoon. Classes specifically emphasize social and employment skills, how to work as a team, how to create a resume and master application and how to access employment opportunities. Each trimester focuses on the specific life skills needed to accomplish certain daily tasks. The fall trimester concentrated on transportation. Teachers helped students understand and use TriMet independently. Food and nutrition is the highlight of the winter term, teaching cooking and meal planning. Spring promises independent living and recreation skills training.
Employment is as important as recreation because a lot of our students won't have full time jobs, Harrell explained. We try to help teach them how to fill that empty void of what do you do when you don't go to work or school. Friday outings include typical teenage activities such as swimming, bowling and going to the mall with an emphasis on planning and execution, which her students tend to struggle with on their own.
With such a wide range of individual aptitudes, Harrell has found creative ways to accommodate small populations of her class. In collaboration with a similar Centennial School District program, the Centennial Transition Center, Harrell co-teaches a Rent Well class with Centennial coordinator Kriss Rita. The class helps the more independent students secure and maintain housing. In turn, Harrell's students utilize Centennial's driver education program for students who wish to pursue their driver's license. It is a great way of opening up social opportunities for students while using district finances more responsibly, Harrell pointed out. Most programs lack the funding to cater to a handful of eligible students, but CTP can offer more services by pooling resources and students from other districts.
Though the program focuses on vocational training, many of Harrell's students live in group homes or foster care and qualify for public assistance. Some students lack the ability to work independently, while others lack the motivation. If they don't want to work we can't force them to work, Harrell said. Though only six students from last year's class now hold jobs, she emphasized the case-by-case basis they work with. Some students may not have employment as a goal, but can still actively contribute to the community through volunteer opportunities. Loaves and Fishes, SnowCap, Volunteers of America and the Humane Society have accepted student interns, offering students who may opt not to work in the future, something constructive to do during their day.
While Harrell admits to being an ideas person, she credits her fellow teachers and assistants with helping create opportunities for their students. When asked why her fellow staff nominated her for the award she used a strategy common to class. We talk a lot to our students about strengths and weaknesses because so many of them have a hard time understanding what a disability is. Part of it is educating them on what it means and how it affects you. I think I have a strength that I am very compassionate, but that can also be a weakness because I can get overcommitted. I think the staff that I work with nominated me because I work extremely hard to help my students be successful, sometimes to a fault. I tend to take it to heart if the kids are having a hard time.
Vocational Coordinator Ron Hall said he nominated Harrell because, Annie has been a staunch advocate for her students and gone out of her way to help. He went on to praise her efforts facilitating student applications for Social Security, housing, vocational rehabilitation, and other public assistance. Whenever she learns about resources for students she has pursued them, he said.
Harrell admitted that teaching life skills sometimes extends beyond the typical school day. I have taken students to PCC [Portland Community College] for a nighttime evaluation, I have taken students to community service and court cases, I've helped a student get a lawyer, and those are things that typical teachers don't do. This year Harrell also helped students open their own bank accounts so they can manage their own money.
When I went through my teaching training there wasn't anything about helping someone apply for food stamps or free daycare or teaching about those kinds of pieces, Harrell continued. In this population and this program, we have to address every aspect of their lives because they need it and if they are not getting it here where are they getting it?
Harrell noted that families might lack information on the resources available to their grown child. If the family does not have the information how can they make the educated choice? Harrell asked. I really want them to succeed to the best of their ability and sometimes I just make that next step.
The next step requires a little pushing and a little letting go. Sometimes we can see the potential and we will say 'this is something you should be able to do'. Some kids don't have that motivation. If they have the drive we will help guide them through it, even if it means staying after school and helping them. On the other hand, most people experience an ingrained sympathy towards the disabled, and overcompensate for their shortcomings. We tend to coddle and support them so much that they don't make any mistakes, whereas it is very natural to learn from your mistakes. If we don't allow them to make mistakes then they won't learn from them, she said. I have had a couple of students make some hard mistakes that they are learning from. I think that we need to give them support but not rob them of that opportunity to learn.
Harrell believes that developing a program to teach the enormous lesson of life skills to such a wide variety of students is an accomplishment in itself, especially since each year, and each trimester introduce new variables to address and new challenges. She is excited by the appreciation she has received. It affirms that what I am doing is making a difference, she said, and that there is recognition because so often this population gets forgotten and it shouldn't be. It is just as important as how many kids go to college, how many of our kids can make connections with their community, and what the High School may see as success we just see it through a different lens.
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