Fully functioning apartment built for special education

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By Grace McQueeny

In a room down the short hallway near door M, special needs students learn to cook on a ceramic stove top, use a microwave, bake cakes, choose food from a refrigerator, and launder and put away their clothes.

This past summer, a fully functioning and furnished apartment was built for students in the severely and profoundly disabled program of the special education department.

“The purpose of the apartment is to help build the students’ independent living skills,” said Ms. Jennifer Schaefer, a special education teacher, who works with the autistic students. “Instead of cooking in the classroom at a table, the students are able to open drawers and make [food] inside a real apartment.”

“In the apartment, we teach students to use motor skills such as stirring and pouring, as well as proper [table] behavior,” said Ms. Christina Clemons, a special education teacher for severely and profoundly disabled students. “We try to get them to understand multi-step [processes], such as finding something in the refrigerator and then using it to cook a meal.”

Depending on the student’s specific disabilities, they are taught in different ways in the apartment.

“Some students are more severe than others, and have physical disabilities,” said Clemons. “We teach some students to use a spoon to stir, while other students have to be taught to pick up a spoon.”

Along with cooking, students are also taught how to properly separate, wash, dry and put away their clothes. They each have their own bins with their names on them that they are able to fold their clothes into when they finish.

Beds, a dresser, a coffee table and other furnishings have been delivered within the past few weeks as the apartment continues to take shape. The bathroom is complete with a toilet, bathtub, shower, and sink, and is used to teach the students about hygiene and proper use of the bathroom.

Schaefer explained that the students are learning daily living skills in the apartment that most people take for granted, such as using a microwave or turning on a dishwasher.

“These are things that people are used to doing, [whereas] the autistic and severe and profound students need to be taught to do these things.”

Students are given recipes to use to cook certain dishes, and the students who cannot read are given more of a visual example of a recipe. Despite their disabilities, they do not get frustrated easily, and patiently work together to cook each dish.

“We try to cook regularly enough so that they will learn to cook these foods on their own,” said Petrez. “We have stopped using recipes for things that these kids know how to make.”

Schaefer and Petrez enthusiastically teach the autistic students to make everything from rice krispie treats to cookies to pizza during their sixth period class each day. On days they make pizza, the students take turns spooning the sauce and spreading the cheese on the dough. They smile and encourage each other with messages of “good job.” When the pizza came out of the oven, students have learned that it is too hot to eat right away, and will blow on their slices to cool them down.

Although some of the students cannot speak, they are able to help each other cook meals successfully. Each is assigned a job like bringing supplies to the kitchen or cleaning up the eating area. They work together eagerly to get the job done.

The students had a Thanksgiving party this year to which each class brought a dish that they cooked themselves. They also made place mats and fun decorations such as Thanksgiving themed hats.

“We made green bean casserole,” said Petrez. “The kids were so excited about it!”

Other than PE class, autistic and severe and profound students are in a self-contained room for the majority of their day.

“The transition [between] classrooms is good for them, since they’re in their classrooms all the time otherwise,” said Clemons.

According to federal law, these students are entitled to free and appropriate education at Lane or any public school until they are 22 years old.

“The students are with us for 9 years,” said Clemons. “After they graduate, they will either live at home or in a residential facility with day programs and workshops geared toward vocation.”

The primary goal for the students when they graduate would be for them to be able to cook, clean, and have the daily living skills of a normal individual. Lane’s unique independent living apartment helps them to do just that, as well as gives them the opportunity to be around regular Lane students.

“The Board of Education came to us with the decision and the funding to [install] this apartment,” said Ms. Rice, the Assistant Principal.

Rice, along with the special education department, set up a registry at Target that can be viewed online for people who wish to make donations to the apartment.

“There are things such as tumblers, measuring cups, pizza pans, kitchenware, sheets and hanging racks,” said Rice.

Lane has undergone several ADA (American Disabilities Act) renovations since last March, including the Memorial Garden and the new bathrooms. This apartment was part of those renovations, but Lane is unique in receiving it because of the school’s large number of special education students and its physical size.

“Lane is very lucky,” said Schaefer. “Independent living [skills] are of equal importance as normal subjects that these students are being taught, and this apartment is [here] to [give them the ability] to live in a home environment where they will be expected to take care of themselves.”