Jake, a senior in Michael Lovejoy’s Special Education class, sits on the couch whispering to his friend, Maggie. They giggle at a joke and continue to play on an iPad, identifying animals with pictures and mimicking the sounds they make. Jake tells me his favorite animal is a fish, although he loves exploring all the sea creatures in Marine Biology class, and proceeds to make Maggie crack up again by barking like a dog.
I ask Maggie what she wants for Christmas, and she freezes up, becoming shy again. Jake takes the iPad from her and opens an app called “proloquo2go,” which helps members of the class find words using visual prompts. He hands the iPad back to Maggie and she smiles before saying, “A puppy!” Maggie proceeds to play “All I Want for Christmas is You” by Justin Bieber, and she and Jake start to dance in the middle of the room. Jake grabs my hand and pulls me into their dance party. Suddenly, Mr. Lovejoy announces that it is time for Jake to do his job. Today, it is his turn to copy handouts that the class will use later in the week. Before leaving to do this, Jake gives hugs to Maggie and me.
“Every member of the class has a job, whether it is copying papers, delivering supplies to other classrooms, [or] taking out the trash,” Lovejoy said. “We want every student to know that they are important, that without them, we wouldn’t be able to run class properly. I want them to know that they have responsibilities too and that their actions can directly affect others.”
Lovejoy’s class, which meets in the Student Center, has a total of 12 students enrolled. In accordance with Tam News policy, which requires us to protect students’ medical information, this feature refers to each student by his or her first name. According to Lovejoy, a common misconception surrounding his class is that his students “just goof off and that their school day looks completely different than regular school.” In reality, Lovejoy’s students arrive at school at 8 a.m., follow the same bell schedule for breaks, and participate in a variety of activities and lessons, such as math, yoga and English for 15 minutes at a time. This shorter time period is designed to help hold the students’ attention.
Most lessons are designed to drive the development of independence and teach the students important skills that they can use when functioning in society. Students learn to construct a grocery list and buy items on this list at the Hungry Hawk each day. This teaches them how to budget their money and use simple math skills to calculate payments.
In addition to activities on campus, members of the class often take field trips on buses, in order to learn how to navigate public transportation. “My favorite are the trips,” Jake said. “One time we went on the bus and I got to go bowling with Maggie.” Students also walk to the Redwoods to volunteer with the elderly in order to learn how to safely cross the street, as well as how to respect and communicate with others. Students take away key values from these trips, such as the importance of personal space, eye contact and how to start an appropriate conversation with a stranger. “I learned to always pick up after myself,” Jake said of the field trips.
Every year, the class plants a vegetable garden and watches the plants grow over the next couple of months. “[Planting] is some of my students’ favorite part about class,” Lovejoy said. In the spring, they harvest and eat the vegetables during school. The garden exercise brings science to life for the students, and teaches them about sustainability and farming.
“I hate vegetables,” Jake said. “But I had to try them because these were my own and I grew them. I still hated them.”
Developing a better sense of communication, transportation and currency skills are some of the basic goals in the class. According to Lovejoy, the curriculum is also tailored to meet the specific needs of each student. “Every year, students, parents, and teachers meet and set individual goals for each student,” Lovejoy said. “The goals vary and depend greatly on the severity of each student’s condition.” These goals range from learning to walk, talk, and do simple math to performing in a play or constructing an aquarium with the help of Ms. Tucker from Marine Science. Lovejoy and the parents then develop an individual education plan to help students achieve their goals for the year.
Isaias, a member of the class, set learning English as his goal. When he joined Lovejoy’s class at the beginning of the year, Isaias could only communicate in Spanish. With help from the English Language Development (ELD) class, Isaias can now communicate with his friends using phrases like “Thank you,” “You’re welcome,” “Hello” and “How are you?” According to Lovejoy, Isaias puts in a lot of hard work, time, and practice and continues to improve both his English and his Spanish everyday.
“I am so happy to talk to my friends now,” Isaias said. Two other students, juniors Jean and Anderson, are also enrolled in ELD classes, and their English has improved tremendously since they enrolled. Before joining the class, Jean could only say a few words in English. Now, he greets all his friends with a “Hi. How are you doing? How is your day?”
Other important goals for the students include better understanding of emotions and the formation of relationships. “It is important for people to know that these kids are in high school too, and they experience many of the same feelings and impulses as regular teenagers,” Lovejoy said. To help educate his students on these principles, Lovejoy brings in a nurse to lead class a few times a week. The nurse teaches students about the body, sex and pregnancy.
Jake wasted no time in showing me his knowledge of the human body by grabbing a book and explaining how each part of the body works. “My aunt, Jackie, is having a baby. Now I know how it got in her belly,” Jake said.
In order to better support the students in their classroom endeavors, Lovejoy’s class relies on technology as an important resource. Certain apps on the iPad, such as “proloquo2go,” help them in comprehension and writing. They also use apps that teach them about animals, and that allow them to record their own voice. According to Maggie, Jake can make the best elephant noise.
Students also draw on computerized programs to help them understand current events. “News-2-You” is a symbol-based program that allows students and teachers to design personalized lesson plans to teach the students about current events in the world
Lovejoy’s class also spends time discussing their feelings with one another, as a class, or one-on-one. By working to understand others, they learn to build healthy relationships. The connections between students are evident when visiting the class. “Maggie is my best friend forever,” Jake said. He spends most of his time speaking with Maggie, and when Maggie gets flustered, Jake is there to comfort her. Anderson greets his friends with a hug or a fist bump, and then proceeds to show them his best dance moves. When Taylor, a senior, gets scared, Jake distracts her by singing Justin Bieber.
Hugs are an important part of Lovejoy’s class, as they are a simple way to show affection for someone else. Members of the class don’t hesitate to give a friend a hug when he or she is upset. “It gives me genuine joy to be around people who aren’t as guarded with their feelings and aren’t afraid to show their love for a friend,” Lovejoy said.
Because they spend a large amount of time together, the students know how to comfort and help each other. The students and teachers have built a strong foundation of trust in the class. “I trust Mr. Lovejoy,” Jake said. “We’re partners in crime.”
Along with participating in activities as a class, students are also integrated into the wider school community through programs such as art, Marine Science, social studies, Peer Resource, physical education and drama. By participating in these programs with the rest of the school, students are able to build relationships with peers outside their small class and learn skills that the Special Education program cannot offer. They are also able to learn from the students in their integrated classes about how to interact with each other and make jokes. Throughout the last two years, Lovejoy has worked with other teachers to develop more of these programs to accommodate his students.
Jake is enrolled in the drama program, and gets to take part in a One Act play each year. “I was a super scary bat last year,” he said. “I hope I get to be another cool thing again this year.”
Maribel and Rae, both students in Lovejoy’s class, are enrolled in Lynne Klein’s drawing and painting class. When asked about the class, Maribel smiles, and explains how it is one of her favorite parts of the day.
The benefits of integration into the school extend beyond the Special Education students. “I love having Maribel and Rae in my class,” Klein said. “When Rae started two years ago in my class, she would only draw her parents or her cats with markers. Now, she has grown as an artist and branched out,” she said. “Art really gives the students a form of expression when regular communication is hard. It is really amazing to see how accepting the students in my regular class are.”
Sophomore Cate Hayman acted in a One Act play with Anderson, Jake, Maggie and Taylor last year. The students wrote the show, acted, helped direct and rehearsed twice a week, with help from then-senior Glynn Peterson. On stage, Hayman would encourage a student to keep going if he or she got frightened or forgot their line. “They are probably the sweetest kids I have ever had the blessing to meet, not to mention they are extremely talented,” Hayman said. “Their brilliant and positive attitudes made me feel welcome from the second we met.”
Another important part of the Special Education’s integration into mainstream high school is Peer Resource. Twice a week, juniors and seniors enrolled in Peer Resource lead Lovejoy’s students in games designed to teach them about the normal challenges high schoolers face. “This is some of my students’ favorite part of the week, because they love and have really connected with the peer resource counselors,” Lovejoy said.
The Peer Resource counselors also expressed enthusiasm for the program. “Being friends with someone who has a [mental] disability should not be different than being friends with someone who doesn’t have a disability, because they are still people and they just respond to social cues differently,” junior Peer Resource counselor Kendra Carr said. “So if you help teach them proper social cues it can almost be an average friendship and should be treated as an average friendship. Through this experience I’ve gotten a friend and definitely learned how to break a barrier.”
According to Lovejoy, Tam is on the forefront of Special Education programs. Children with disabilities around the world are still institutionalized and kept away from society, but Tam strives to include Special Education students in mainstream school. “I am so proud of our program at Tam High and the level of integration we have achieved,” Lovejoy said. “We are fortunate to have so much kindness from the students and teachers.”
While Lovejoy’s students take away a lot from their classes, Lovejoy believes that they have a lot to offer others. “Working here allows me to be both a teacher and a student. I learn so much every day about being a genuine human being and a brave and thoughtful person,” Lovejoy said. “These kids taught me that it is not about what life presents you with, but what you do with it and how you overcome the obstacles life hands you.”