Daily Commute Inspired a Heartening Class Visit

Now in its 14th year, the Explorations Program at Irvington (NY) High School teaches life skills to young men and women with cognitive disabilities, highlighting a different aspect of learning each day. For Nanuet resident and special education teacher Holly Sewalk, the twice-daily commute became an educational vehicle for her students.

“Today we’re making fresh apple pies — not just making them, but making a shopping list, learning about handling food safely, making a grocery list, cleaning up after cooking, etc.,” special education teacher Holly Sewalk explained.

Most of the teens and young adults ages 14 to 21 within the program are referred from Irvington Middle School — which later implemented a similar program — and surrounding school districts, Sewalk said. “Everything we do relates to life skills to help them move on to an adult life.”

Students had their questions ready for Educational Outreach Administrator Andy O'Rourke/Photo: Holly Sewalk

Students had their questions ready for Educational Outreach Administrator Andy O’Rourke/Photo: Holly Sewalk

Social skills are a major component; students also learn about shopping and best value, “which isn’t always the lowest price…” Two mornings a week, students work in local businesses as part of the program’s vocational learning.

Another part of the program, one of the first of its kind in the district, is academic — a math lesson involves a trip to Sunnyside Federal Savings Bank in Irvington. “We fill out a deposit or withdrawal slip, hand it to the teller, and then check the balance,” she said.

To help her students understand community-based instruction, Sewalk felt that learning about this monumental undertaking in the local community was significant for students to understand. “I felt it’s important for them to see history in the making,” she said.

Teaching Assistant Mary Fox called the New NY Bridge Outreach Center and arranged a presentation. Because project officials had planned a media boat tour that day, Educational Outreach Administrator Andy O’Rourke met her class solo and well prepared.

Perfect view of the concrete batch plant/Holly Sewalk

Perfect view of the concrete batch plant/Holly Sewalk

“Andy spoke with teachers before the presentation and tailored it to my students’ comprehension abilities,” Sewalk recalled. That was most important. Additionally, she and teaching assistant Mary Fox did pre-teaching strategies about the bridge prior to the day trip. “He went through the history of the bridge, why it’s named the Tappan Zee Bridge, and the oyster program, so the presentation combined current events and also included historical components” she said.

Students had seen pictures of the barges and the bridge, and learned each crane has a different name and is paired with a barge.

So engrossed was her class that they spent more time than planned at the viewing area and got back to school later than expected. A big thrill was holding the steel piling — “They couldn’t believe how heavy it is!” Sewalk recalled — and looking at the informational panels.

“Our Educational Outreach program helps inform and shape all students’ understanding of the New NY Bridge project. The presentation for special needs groups like the Irvington High School Explorations Program takes the effort to another level. It is extremely gratifying to connect with these young people and get them interested in learning more about this historic project.” — Educational Outreach Administrator Andy O’Rourke

Last month they watched the I Lift NY super crane’s arrival from their school’s second floor windows. “It came very slowly, and they could experience it arriving,” she said. “Some of the leaves had fallen from trees, so we had a mostly-clear view.”

Presented for the first time in October 2013, the educational initiative has received positive reactions from parents and educators. It aims to stimulate young minds into pursuing education and careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

I’d like to know what you think.

Copyright © Janie Rosman and Kaleidoscope Eyes 2014

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