By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Doing it for themselves

Whether it’s cooking or working on other lessons, Life Skills staff members let students do things on their own as much as possible. Anything they can do, they should do, teacher Charlotte Smail explained.

Waiting can be hard, she said. But she said, “We don’t steal their independence. If we don’t give them a chance to fail, they’ll never learn.”

She noted another important rule for her classroom at McMinnville High School: “We treat them like teens.”

That’s incredibly important to the students, said Smail, who joined the McMinnville School District in 2010. They’re in high school now, and they want to be treated that way.

The Life Skills class consists of students with a variety of special needs and physical challenges. Smail said cognitive levels range from the equivalent of 6 months to about 12 years.

Some have limited speaking ability. Some are in wheelchairs. Others have severe physical problems. But some are very independent.

Most go to adaptive P.E. classes. Some go to mainstream classes, although they may not stay for the entire period.

All attend assemblies, such as the homecoming assembly during which three Life Skills students — Iain, Juan and Carolina — were named members of the court.

Mac High Life Skills students also work in the school laundry, washing towels and other linens. They’re paid for their efforts. The money goes toward buying groceries for the frequent cooking lessons and lunches.

Currently, the program has 10 students, four of whom need total care, Smail said. She and five other staff members work in the classroom.

About 10 peer tutors from the general high school population, including Kaitlyn Cantrell and Devin Draper, are devoted to Life Skills.

The student aides help with wheelchairs and do laundry routes with them. They advocate for Life Skills students and model socialization skills. Most importantly, they include the Life Skills students in mainstream activities.

The program is very individualized, Smail said. Each student has a personalized educational plan developed by staff, parents and specialists.

Teachers want each student making as much progress as possible. Many can learn to care for themselves and live on their own.

They learn skills for independence, such as cooking, shopping, doing laundry and otherwise maintaining a household; recreation skills, so they can make use of spare time; work skills and how to keep track of their time cards.

“We break things down and use visual cues,” she said. “And we practice. For instance, a student will go to the store and have five minutes to find a certain item, so they learn they can’t just browse for four hours.”

They also master basics, such as their own address and phone number, telling time and keeping track of the calendar. If they can’t learn to read fluently, they learn, at least, how to recognize “survival words,” such as “caution” and “hot.”

They also learn the importance of adapting to the situation -- you can act differently at home than at school, for instance. And they practice taking care of themselves, including healthy eating and exercise.

“We never give up on them,” Smail said. “We push the limits; we set high goals; we challenge them. And because we do, we see a lot of progress.

After students turn 18 and complete Mac High’s Life Skills program, they go on to the district’s adult program. housed near Newby Elementary School.

Life Skills education continues until they are 21, focusing on living independently and being part of the community.

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