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January 12, 2003

More than curriculum: These special students learn about life

From: Edmonton Journal, Canada - 12 Jan 2003

Cathy Lord, Journal Staff Writer The Edmonton Journal

It's a weekday afternoon in the life-skills classroom at L.Y. Cairns school and the subject is monsters.

While teaching assistant Connie Gongos signs for two deaf students, teacher Terry Croft asks her 16 high school students seated around a long table what monsters do.

Up go the hands.

"They scare people," says one.

"They roar," says another.

"They eat people," says a third.

Croft, 42, is blond, glamorous and dramatic. As tough as she is funny, she commands the attention of the class. And her students learn their lessons while having some fun.

"How do you spell scare," she asks, eyes widening as she waits for a response.

"You're way too smart, you need to leave," she tells the student who answers correctly, eliciting laughter from some of the class.

Ranging in age from 14 to 19, Croft's students wrestle with disabilities including Down's syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, attention deficit disorder, autism and behaviour problems.

Her class aims to teach them how to live as independently as possible, to do their own banking, shopping, cooking, exercise and eventually find work.

"We try to prepare them for the whole life experience," she says.

She has three teaching assistants. One uses sign language for the two deaf students, another organizes work experience and a third helps develop curriculum.

L.Y. Cairns junior-senior high school at 10510 45th Ave. is an Edmonton Public Schools site for 452 special needs students.

In addition to academic classes, there are instructions in horticulture, cooking, sewing, woodworking, welding and automotive. There's a weight room, games room and animal science room.

Angela Addley has been going to L.Y. Cairns since she was 11. The curious and friendly 17-year-old girl who is in Croft's class says she hopes to go to college. Her favourite subject is math and she likes to skate and rollerblade.

Croft tries to give her students as many experiences as she can. "The idea of being an adult is very important to them. They know they have a disability, but we encourage them to take risks, to allow them to fall down ..."

She sees their self-esteem climb when they learn to do things on their own. Their frustration levels decrease and some of the behaviour problems go away. When their confidence level rises, so does their self-esteem.

Parent Cynthia Robinson has seen her daughter Alex's self-esteem grow as she gets more independent. The 16-year-old has been in the class for four years. "For Alex this has been a wonderful experience."

The "rules" of the class are posted on the wall: "Be respectful, be kind, be tolerant, be understanding, be loving in word and deed."

Each of the high school students does two three-week sessions of work experience every year. And with more than 200 businesses taking part, they have lots of options.

Students work in video stores, fast food restaurants, stock shelves in grocery stores, or do outdoor yard work.

Croft says they enjoy the experience and pictures of the students at their jobs decorate a section of her classroom's walls.

"These kids have come a long way," she says.

At the end of the section on monsters, students will produce a book with the two artists in the class doing the illustrations, the computer experts doing graphics, others doing the writing and book binding. The book will be placed in the school library.

It takes a lot of energy to teach the class, something Croft has done for more than six years. The reward is watching the growth of her students.

"These students become part of my life," she says. "They are like my second family. I'm tough. They know my expectations. It takes a lot of love. These kids know I love them so they trust me. When I say you have disappointed me, tears come."

Assistant principal Bruce Miller says Croft does "a tremendous job. Her program is excellent. It's very student-centred.

"We have very high expectations of our students," says Miller. "We want them to be independent and eventually function in a job."

© Copyright 2003 Edmonton Journal