One of the more interesting speakers yesterday was the Danville High School Co-Op teacher, Mike Pennock. He’s been doing this a long time. He is in his 31st year of teaching and he discussed a number of things I found more than just a little bit interesting.
As he got started, he discussed when he started teaching in the late 70s. Back then, he stated ‘your’ (he knew he was speaking to a special needs parent audience, so I was okay with this language) kids would have been taught in their own special classrooms in their own special wing of the building. Further, if this wasn’t bad enough, they wouldn’t have eaten with the neuro-typicals, nor socialized in anyway with them. It wasn’t they were shunted, rather, it was they were separated.
Today, as he said, its inclusive and he feels that this is absolutely huge. Yes, there are moments when some neuro-typicals act inappropriately, but for the most part, they integrate to the best of their abilitites and they should be integrated, because, as he said, life is integrated.
So how does this integration translate into his classes and co-op programs?
First, one of the things the special needs teachers, IEP team, parents and Mr. Pennock do is evaluate the student. The painful part of this conversation was here – your kid may be at his/her highest ability of education, at this point we need to start ‘training’ (my word here) him or her for the workforce. Ex: that the special needs teacher gave – training your child to shake the hand of his/her employer, not hug him/her. Good point.
So a parent asked, what type of jobs? Hostesses, cashiers, etc…and you could hear a pin drop. Is this it? The best we can hope for our children in these types of programs? No said Mr. Pennock, but it is the type of employer that will work with your child, or any high school kid, for that matter. He does have a child (not special needs) working with the county lawyer, but it is unpaid – but the kid wants to go to law school.
While this made everyone a bit more comfortable, I still had visions of Demetrius working at Walgreens or CVS, putting Cheetos on the shelf and helping grandmas with ordering their digital photos.
But I get it – school is about preparation for the future, for each kid, not for your parental dreams. Nuff said.
He further stated that you know what, not only are these kids in the classroom and its great for the kids and school, they are often the best performers in the program. They are proud of their jobs, they do their best, they don’t resent being asked to do things that they may think may be ‘below them’, they aren’t petulant, and they get their forms signed and turned in on time. There are 174 ‘work days’ in a school year, and most of these kids only miss when they are sick or its vacation. What more as a teacher can you ask?
Who else is in this program, a parent asked? Teenage mothers, kids who want to be involved in ‘business studies’ (he also teaches a marketing and business principles class) and ‘at-risk’ kids who won’t earn a high school degree in a traditional college prep program, this is their other option. Again, the parents went quiet.
Can I see a kid teasing Demetrius or bullying him? Absolutely. Isn’t this me being stereotypical, not unlike other parents are when they think of special needs kids? Absolutely. Shame on me. But in many ways this is the saving grace of the Co-Op program, it is training kids to be proud and better at things that I may not be putting value in/on. Again, shame on me. So I rationalized this fear out of my head.
I found this session interesting and Mr. Pennock to be very engaging and positive. He wants kids who want to make a difference and try hard, and you can say that he genuinely didn’t see an issue with a kid being at risk, a teenage mother or special needs, as long as they were willing to try, learn and work for what they wanted.
At the break, some of the parents approached him with questions. He answered many questions with regards to his program, and then would bring the special needs high school teacher into the conversation when it came to particulars on IEPs and the Co-Op program.
I heard him say that simply some kids didn’t need a lot of IEP support due to where they are on the spectrum or their disabilities. Others, he’ll spend half an hour or so every couple of weeks on going through to make sure the kids are hitting stride, and working with the employers so they understand what the kids are supposed to learn and work on.
Isn’t that great?!?
This guy will probably be long retired before Demetrius ever would get to high school, and I’m not moving 45 min-to-an-hour south of Lexington to go to Danville High School, but I will tell you what – I did like what this guy was saying from a micro (IEP for your kid and working with a teacher) and macro level (70s non-inclusion and 00s integration).
Well done Mr. Pennock. Well done – keep it up. Any kid working with you to develop life skills is a kid that’s better off.