D204 excursions help kids with special needs learn more about community life
By Susan Frick Carlman firstname.lastname@example.org February 23, 2013 8:14PM
Peterson Elementary student Lauren Behm grabs a slice of cheese as she makes a pizza at Lou Malnati's in downtown Naperville on Thursday, February 21, 2013, as part of the school's community learning program. Special needs students visited the Nichols Library for stories about government and got a special visit from Mayor George Pradel as they made their own pizzas. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 25, 2013 6:12AM
Most of the time when Christian Murray goes places with his mom, they’re running errands. The Peterson Elementary School fifth-grader sees and hears the rhythms of daily living, but it’s largely in a non-participating capacity.
When Christian and his peers — who share a self-contained classroom for kids with special needs — go places together, they play a far more active role.
“I love that,” said his mom, Kathy Murray.
Christian, who has Down syndrome and is on the autism spectrum, relished the cheese-cloaked pizza he fashioned for himself at Lou Malnati’s in downtown Naperville Thursday. It was the second stop the group made on their monthly excursion, part of the community-based instruction program in Indian Prairie District 204. The educational enhancement is defined by its regular, systematic nature and its focus on practical skills.
“Basically, community-based instruction is a way for students to have instructional time in the settings where they would be using those skills,” said Barb Byrnes, the district’s assistant director for student services.
Trips might find the students, with their teachers and aides, visiting a grocery store or a riding a commuter train, stopping at the post office or touring an area farm, rolling a few frames at a bowling alley or taking in a restaurant meal. Depending on their grade level, students venture out anywhere from quarterly to once a week or more. For teens who have jobs, it’s more.
“It could be daily, because they’re working in the community,” Byrnes said.
While the curriculum feature isn’t new, its reach has grown with the support of Indian Prairie instructors. All 16 classrooms in the six District 204 elementary buildings with self-contained special needs populations — Builta, Graham, Owen, Patterson, Peterson and Welch — take part in the program, in addition to students at the middle school and high school levels.
“We’ve always had the opportunity to go on community trips,” said Peterson special-needs teacher Kari Saunders. “But this past summer there was a committee that got it a little better organized.”
The frequency is kept low at first. Kindergartners through second-graders take trips only four times each year.
“They’re still learning routines, getting used to things,” Saunders said.
Kids learn to make their way through their environment, and to practice caution when doing things like crossing the street, but they also pick up crucial communication skills and gain a better grasp of their own sense of place.
“Exposing him to community activities allows him to be in a structured situation but still out in the community, with some freedom,” Kathy Murray said, adding that the trips give Christian structured exposure to daily activities he’ll encounter as an adult. “He has that one-on-one attention. It’s fun, but it teaches him a life skill, and how to navigate in the community. That’s something that he can’t get from me.”
Terry Behm said she can see how much the excursions benefit her daughter, Lauren, 10.
“She loves people, loves to have a sense of responsibility and recognition,” Behm said. “And this gives her an opportunity to get out and do some of those things in the community.”
Lauren has a variety of developmental delays, mostly related to speech, her mom said. She uses a device that helps her communicate, but her enthusiasm was evident at the outing’s first stop, which took them to Nichols Library in downtown Naperville for some stories related to presidents, in keeping with their current unit of study on government.
Children’s services associate Carol May read a book about George Washington, who owned some three dozen dogs over the course of his life.
“General Washington really liked dogs. They made him smile,” May said, accentuating her smile with fingertips at each corner of her mouth. “Do you smile when you’re happy?”
The group launched into a spirited rendition of “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” with requisite motions.
“Hurray, hurray!” Christian shouted, clapping, as the song ended.
After a short walk from the library, the class settled into a space just off the main dining room at Lou Malnati’s. They were joined there by Mayor A. George Pradel, who did the honors when it was time to ladle sauce onto each child’s personal-size pie.
“This is so wonderful ... and the fellowship of the parents and the caregivers, being able to give them something a little special,” said Pradel, visibly moved by the midday bit of official duty. “It’s so precious just to hear the excitement in their hearts. You can see it in their eyes.
“They’re just special, and that’s why we’re making it special. Because we love them.”