Herricks brings real life to special ed classroom

Herricks brings real life to special ed classroom
Students in Herricks High School’s VIP program took their guests on a tour of a new classroom and described its features during a Dec. 16 ribbon-cutting event. (Photo courtesy of Herricks Public Schools)

A new classroom at Herricks High School is giving special-education students a taste of the real world without leaving the school grounds.

Students in the school’s Vocational Independence Program celebrated a ribbon-cutting Dec. 16 marking the completion of the classroom designed like an apartment where they learn life skills such as cooking and cleaning on real “state-of-the-art” appliances, said Julie Duenges, one of two teachers in the program, known as VIP.

“It’s really the kind of environment for students in that VIP program, because they’re learning wonderful life skills and vocational skills that will really be beneficial for their development and their education,” Fino Celano, the Herricks school superintendent, said.

Herricks High School expanded the program to include students between the ages of 16 and 21 after offering it to ninth- through 11th-graders for several years, Duenges said.

The 15 students have used the classroom, known as the “VIP suite,” on a daily basis since the beginning of the school year in September, she said.

An apartment-style classroom for a similar program at Herricks Middle School opened last year, Celano said.

Lessons at the high school vary from day to day and have had students cook in the kitchen, do laundry in the washer and dryer and have conversations with each other in the lounge area, Duenges said.

The classroom also has a bed, a touch-screen whiteboard and moveable, “collaborative” desks, so teachers can use it for just about any lesson, Duenges said.

The older students also use it to learn skills for the jobs  they have during the school day at places such as Old Navy, Home Depot and Chocolate Works, a shop in Westbury, Duenges said.

“It’s really used to take adaptive daily living skills and make them into more real-life situations,” she said.

The classroom reflects best practices in special education, which have moved more toward hands-on learning in recent years because it shows students how to apply skills learned in one setting to others, Duenges said.

The district modeled it on current research in the field and visits to similar facilities in other districts, Celano said.

Having the classrooms helps Herricks meet more students’ needs, preventing them from having to travel to other districts to get a good education, Celano said.

“That’s our goal, is to keep our kids in district rather than have out-of-district placements, and this is an opportunity to do that,” he said.

The ninth- through 11th-graders also take life skills-based math and reading classes, along with some electives, while the older students spend about two and a half hours each day at their job sites, Duenges said.

No matter what they’re doing, all the students love spending time in the new classroom, she said.

“They don’t want to leave,” Duenges said. “… I think they see the use of it and the importance of learning in real-life situations.”

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