One of my favorite things about White Oak is the way we celebrate different identities on our campus. Each year, we have robust programming for Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month and Pride Month, among other celebrations. This year, our incredible YES Student Transition and Enrichment Program (YSTEP) teachers suggested we find a way to raise awareness and acceptance about students with disabilities and thus, Disability Awareness Month was born at our school!
Disabilities Awareness Month at White Oak
For the first time ever, White Oak’s Special Education department is using the month of April to celebrate the disabled community, increase understanding about disabilities and promote inclusivity among our staff, students and community. While April is recognized as Autism Acceptance Month, we wanted to promote acceptance of all individuals with disabilities. Each week, we have focused on different groups of disabilities, including Cognitive, Social/Emotional and Physical Disabilities. Our programming has focused on educating both staff and students through informational presentations, resources, movie screenings, a professional learning competition, lounge celebrations and a social media campaign.
The goal of Disabilities Awareness Month at White Oak is that our students learn more about the way disabilities can affect people and how they can be more inclusive peers. At the same time, we are inviting our staff to learn more about how different disabilities can show up in school and how to best support the wide variety of needs.
Serving students with a wide range of needs
In fact, a “wide variety of needs” very accurately characterizes White Oak. With about 10% of our students receiving special education services, White Oak has one of the largest Special Education departments in the district. We serve students from 10 disability categories whose needs range from intensive support in academics and life skills to students who simply need a few accommodations, or supports, to access and excel in the general curriculum. We are happy to be home to a YSTEP classroom, working with students with high support needs, and to have an incredible team supporting students in the general education classes.
In special education, and in the wider disabled community, it is so important to remember that one size does not fit all and that the differences between us make us stronger. Disabilities are often still seen as a lack of or an inability, but we know that disabilities are really just different abilities. Students with disabilities often have unique strengths that other students do not have, and they typically struggle with the same challenges that many non-disabled students also struggle with.
The obstacles that can come from having a disability, however, can push individuals to shine in different areas, to approach problems from different perspectives, and to perceive the world in unique ways. Barbara Corcoran, a businesswoman and investor on the show Shark Tank, struggled with dyslexia growing up, but maintains that her struggles only made her stronger, stating "dyslexia made me a millionaire…. It made me more creative, more social and more competitive."
It is so important to remember that one size does not fit all and that the differences between us make us stronger.
Teachers preparing students for what comes next
With the right supports, students with special education services grow, excel and leave our halls prepared for their futures. One such senior who is ready to take on the world is Stephan Baines. Stephan is a student with Asperger’s Syndrome, on the Autism spectrum, and is a vibrant, creative and passionate young man. Next year, Stephan will be studying at Lone Star College to complete his introductory credits and establish career connections before transferring to the Art Institute of Houston or University of Houston. Stephan hopes to study and pursue a career in animation or acting. He feels that this year, as a senior, has been the peak of his education thus far.
“All of my teachers have been really encouraging of me. Three teachers in particular - Ms. Walker, Ms. Hindy, and Ms. Sanchez - have stood out in my education. They know that being a teacher is more than just teaching the topic; they want the best from their students. They were there on good days, bad days, and the worst days. I know I’m not the easiest student, I can be moody, but even in my darkest times, they were there to encourage me that better days were coming.”
Stephan wants teachers to remember that "teachers are not working with just one kind of student. Everyone has their own strengths and their own weaknesses. Teachers are working with over a hundred students, over a hundred personalities, and over a hundred needs. It’s hard work but they put in the effort to support all students, from the kids who learn quickly to the ones who need a little more time.”
It’s hard work but they put in the effort to support all students, from the kids who learn quickly to the ones who need a little more time.
Starting post-secondary education before graduation
Christopher Wilson is another senior who receives special education services and is already on an incredible post-secondary path. Christopher has a learning disability and health condition, but you would be hard-pressed to find another student as dedicated and hard-working as Chris.
“I could always count on Chris to be the first one to raise his hand in class to answer a question or the first one to pick up a pencil to start practicing. Chris may have to work harder than most students to grasp concepts, but with his efforts, he is able to perform just as well, if not better, than the other general education students,” says Algebra II teacher Jessica Hindy. “He is not defeated by his disabilities or by needing to work harder than others; instead, he is joyfully resilient and persistent.”
Christopher wants to someday become a chef and run his own restaurant, and he’s well on his way! Chris will graduate with his classmates in June but has already started taking college courses for the Culinary Arts Program at the Art Institute of Houston; on the weekends, Chris learns the fundamental skills, concepts and techniques in cooking – and we hear he makes a mean chicken enchilada!
Different Abilities, Not Lesser Abilities
People with disabilities have made incredible contributions to our society, despite - or maybe because of - their differences. Many highly renowned and respected artists, musicians, athletes, actors, scientists, businessmen and other leaders have or had disabilities. We know our students with disabilities have bright futures ahead of them and we cannot wait to see what they accomplish.
If you take one thing from Disabilities Awareness Month, remember that people with disabilities are not less, they are just different. Each day, we see the way our students in special education shine. They may face obstacles and may learn or do things differently than most people, but nothing will hold them back.
Learn more about YES Prep’s Special Education program
To learn more about YES Prep’s Special Education program, we invite you to click here. Here you will find more information about the YSTEP program as well as a transition guide for post-secondary opportunities and special education resources.
About the Author
Emily Adams is the Special Education Manager at YES Prep White Oak Secondary. She is in her tenth year in education and her third year at White Oak Secondary.
Emily graduated with dual master’s degrees in Elementary Education and Special Education through Lesley University and is an alumna of the Urban Teachers fellowship program. She received her B.A. in International Development at The George Washington University.