During Autism Awareness month in April, I received a very touching email from Eva Marie Considine, whose son attends the autism magnet program at Valle Verde Elementary in Walnut Creek. She wanted to share her son’s experience in the preschool and kindergarten programs with the community, to demonstrate the major impact the program and its teachers have had on her son, Soren.
In response, I visited her son’s classroom and wrote about her email, as well as what I saw: http://www.contracostatimes.com/news/ci_20764856/students-thrive-magnet-autism-program-at-walnut-creeks. However, due to limited space, I was not able to include everything she wrote in her email. With her permission, I am posting her entire email below:
“I wanted to play my part in celebrating Autism Awareness month this April by shining a light on the positive work that is being done for my son, Soren. He attends Valle Verde Elementary School in Walnut Creek where they have a spectacular early intervention program starting with an academic preschool that feeds into mainstream Kindergarten classes.
With a lot of information about Autism and what it is, mainly in my son’s case being in need of help with social interactions and focus in school, we sometimes forget to talk about what is going right.
As parents, some say it is a huge brick on the chest feeling when they hear that their child has Autism. Sort of a numbness can follow. Fear. How will I meet his/her needs? But for some, it can be extreme relief that an explanation and set plan can help make a difference when for so long they have been internally screaming for an answer to all of the: ‘Why does my child throw tantrums, repeat phrases, avoid eye contact, act as if he/she cannot hear me?’ kinds of questions.
I think that Valle Verde’s program could help other programs by following some of their components. First, the staff is caring. On paper, that word doesn’t quite seem to capture my gratitude for these ladies. They want to see success for my son and all of their students. They miss the children when they are absent. You have this feeling of peace that the children are loved in a family sort of way.
Secondly, each skill taught is carefully crafted into group and individual activities to address IEP goals, social goals, motor skill goals, speech development, and academic preparedness for Kindergarten. The transformation is mind-boggling.
For example, before my son attended Ellen Terminello’s class he refused to color, write, or even sit for a few minutes to work on these skills. I remember that first day driving to Valle Verde. My son thoughtfully stared out of the window as I asked questions. It was quiet in the car that first morning.
Within a week, we started talking on the way to school. I remember seeing a falling fence on Ygnacio Valley road, and I asked, “Who do you think could fix that fence?” Soren responded, “Grandpa.” The tears streamed down my face. We had started to converse about a single topic without random interruptions of repeated phrases that I didn’t quite understand at the time. Soon, he started writing his ABC’s and drawing and playing games with his sister more. He was ready for the next step: Kindergarten.
The program feeds into Kindergarten where my son is placed now in a mainstream class. When his Kindergarten class is finished, he is able to have speech, OT (Occupational Therapy), and social skills practice at the end of the day. His needs are being met without disruption to his day. He has a wonderful teacher, Mrs. (Joanie) Cuneo who has created a climate where my son is successful in school and being part of the group. He has friends and comes home excited about the academies, projects, routines, and P.E. (especially hip hop). The curriculum is enhanced in such a creative way and the two Kindergarten classes collectively participate throughout the week which adds expands the community of friends and learners. Mrs. LaDue, Mrs. Cuneo, Mrs. Terminello work closely together to provide specific instruction to each individual. They provide a top notch example of partnership.
I also enjoy the opportunity to help out on Fridays with art because I am able to see my son smile and fit right in to his class. With an assistant, Soren has caring support to keep on task and complete his work.
With an experienced and loving staff, a comprehensive academic program with all of the supports playing their part in the symphony, and the seamless transition between teachers and grades, the preschool and Kindergarten program sets the stage for success for years to come. My son is a new little boy who loves school and has close friends. I could not be happier for the quality of education my son has received.
Recently, the district honored teachers and staff who have made a difference. This was my response to that opportunity written to the district’s parent liaison, Hillary Shen.
‘I wanted to nominate my son’s teacher Ellen Terminello for outstanding service…going above and beyond the call of duty. She has led a wonderful staff in giving her students a solid academic foundation prior to Kindergarten. In addition to the academic preparedness, she teaches OT to ALL students whether is is on their IEP or not. She always has time to listen and work through any concern. My son has transformed from the boy who sits in the sandbox to the boy with many friends and a bright and loving personality. She is my miracle worker!’
Since I could only nominate one person this year, I am looking forward to nominating my son’s Kindergarten teacher next year. These ladies are such a team, and they truly have made a difference for which I am forever grateful.
Valle Verde Parent”
Do you support the idea of “mainstreaming” special education students into general education classrooms?
JUNE 6 UPDATE: Ellen Terminello also recently shared a touching letter she received from a former student’s parent and an email from the student, after she was honored with the “You Make A Difference” award. With her permission, I am posting what she told a group of people who came to hear an Asperger’s presentation at the school by Dr. Kathryn Stewart:
“Several weeks ago, I was honored by the MDUSD CAC (Community Advisory Committee) with a You Make a Difference Award. The Contra Costa Times carried an article about the awards and listed the names of those of us who were recognized. A former parent of a student that both Kathryn and I knew 24 years ago got in touch with me after she read the article. She wanted to share how well her son is doing as an adult. This young man was finally diagnosed as an adolescent with Aspergers (which was not a diagnosis in his early years) and OCD. When Kathryn and I knew him in K-1, he was selectively mute. His mother reports that ‘He is very outgoing — unlike the days in your classroom.’
I received an email from my now 30-year-old former student, which said: ‘I am sorry you never got a chance to hear my voice. I was really shy back then and was afraid to speak to anyone. I have lots of friends now, a girlfriend, a job and an apartment. I hope to talk to you one day so you can finally hear my voice.’
These students have always been in our school population. They just had different labels in the past.”
Terminello told me the student was also a member of the Boy Scout troop operated by the Rowntrees, whom I featured in the Contra Costa Times story about the You Make a Difference awards, to which Terminello referred.