April 1st kicks off Autism Awareness month. I have lots of things planned for the blog this month. I’ve scheduled a number of interviews with teachers, therapists and parents who work with or have children with autism. I thought I’d give readers a little insight into the village it takes to raise my son Bear and other special children like him. I have two pieces coming up for the Huffington Post. One is an updated version of an old blog that is near and dear to my heart, and the other is a blog I contributed to about what autism is and what it is not. The Forsyth Special Olympics is this month, so I will be covering that ( and praying for sunny skies and warm weather). Finally I have some very exciting news to share about Barrett and his school. So be sure to check back often this month. All of these blogs with be listed under the autism category. I’m kicking the month off by sharing an article I wrote for My Forsyth Magazine, about Exceptional Children’s Week.
Celebrating Exceptional Children’s Week
Exceptional Children’s Week is an annual celebration of students with exceptionalities and the professionals who serve them. The weeklong celebration is a national movement started by the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), which is a national group that serves as the voice and vision of special education. The state of Georgia also has a Georgia Council for Exceptional Children (GCEC), which leads the celebration for our local schools. This year they designated March 10-14, 2014 as Exceptional Children’s Week (ECW). Many Forsyth County schools use the week as opportunity for education, fundraising and celebration.
For several years, I had the honor of chairing the Exceptional Children’s Committee for a couple local elementary school PTAs. As the mother of a special needs child, I believe in the importance of celebrating ECW – it’s a wonderful way to educate the student body and staff, and to promote support for special education. This year, the GCEC chose the theme, Going Beyond All Possibilities. I love this! The logo that the council is using this year was designed by a student with exceptionalities.
Education and awareness are the focal points of ECW, because for most students the first exposure to a person with special needs is in the school environment. By educating ourselves, we are more prepared to empathize with special students and engage with them. This leads to inclusion, which students in special education desire and deserve. ECW is also an opportunity to point out that special needs cover a spectrum of issues that don’t merely affect students in self-contained special education classrooms. Many children walking the corridors of our schools fall under the umbrella of special education.
At Forsyth Middle School, with Principal Sandy Tinsley’s support, the Guidance and Special Education departments are spearheading the school’s ECW celebration. Jennifer Gibbs, along with a fellow guidance counselor at the school, advises the student leadership team called S.O.A.R., (which stands for Show Others Acceptance and Respect). Students can be a part of S.O.A.R. by applying, writing an essay and going through the interview process. S.O.A.R. is considered a Connections class with credit. This year the club designed posters featuring famous people who have succeeded in spite of their “disabilities.” The posters are on display throughout the school and examples include Helen Keller, Steve Jobs and Michael Phelps. It’s incredible to see the S.O.A.R. students leading by example.
At Liberty Middle School, there are peer buddies in the self-contained classrooms every day. These peers help their fellow students with classwork, life skills training and social skills. Sometimes they help just by being there. I can attest, from my own experience, that it’s pretty cool to see my special needs son walk down the hallway, smiling with one of his “buddies.” These peer buddies are my heroes. Buddies have to apply to be in the class and give up electives, such as P.E., but earn credit for their time in the classroom.
Insert Picture of Bear with Buddy.
Schools also use the week as an opportunity to celebrate the special education teachers, therapists and paraprofessionals who could easily be overlooked during Teacher Appreciation Week celebrations, because their classes are so small. At Shiloh Point Elementary School, where Sarah Armstrong is the ECW PTA chair, the ECW committee had t-shirts made for the special education staff, which they wore on sprit day. The staff was feted with breakfast, lunch and a dessert bar during the week.
Often, through either PTA or school fundraising, the staff and department receive much needed equipment or supplies for their students. Fundraising during the weekly celebration can support the needs of students who often don’t benefit from traditional fundraisers. For example, some students can’t play on a school playground if it’s not adapted for their needs. ECW is an opportunity to acquire the necessary special equipment.
A few schools take this week (or the day of the Special Olympics) to celebrate their special students. Shiloh Point Elementary does a great job with this and their principal, Rebecca Johnson, should be commended. Every year since the school opened, they’ve held a huge parade for special needs children. All the teachers and students line up throughout the school, holding up posters and pompoms, cheering as their fellow students march (or in some cases wheel) down the hallway. If you haven’t been lucky enough to witness this, it’s awesome. I’ve walked the parade, cheered the parade as a bystander and filmed the parade as a committee member. I cried like a baby every time. It’s powerful. Oh, the smile on those precious faces. Priceless.
What are you waiting for? Please help celebrate Exceptional Children’s Week at your children’s school. Join your ECW committee – or form one if there isn’t already one. Volunteer when the committee asks for help. It’ll open your eyes and possibly even change your perspective of these extraordinary students, by giving them the hope to Go Beyond All Possibilities!
If you’re interested in learning more, contact your school’s principal or PTA president. I promise you, it’ll be worth it.
Tell me, how does your school celebrate?