Student with AIU vision supports to begin 'Space Camp' Journey this month
There’s lots 19-year-old Daniel Abel is looking forward to this school year. Among the biggest for the Spectrum Charter School student: A trip to Huntsville, Alabama for the annual U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s Space Camp in late September.
Danny is among a small group of students around the world to be awarded a scholarship to the weeklong outing after writing a thoughtful and convincing essay to Space Camp organizers.
“I really didn’t think I would get it,” Danny said of the scholarship award. “Not in the slightest.”
His certified TVI (Teacher of the Blind and Visually Impaired) with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, Linda Novak, encouraged him to apply for the scholarship given his interest in science and astronomy.
It’s a subject Danny has explored from an early age. “The mystery of it all,” he says about the vast reaches of space. “I’ve always been amazed by that.”
Novak will be traveling with Danny to Huntsville, AL for the duration of the camp, which will immerse students in training techniques and exercises made for astronauts using equipment adapted from NASA programs.
Novak said Danny has a willingness to try new things and demonstrates an ability to excel with the right assistance.
“Once he received those vision supports, (Danny’s performance) just skyrocketed,” Novak said.
Danny is among the first students from Spectrum Charter to participate in work-study (he also attends Forbes Road Career & Technology Center for logistics and warehouse management). In addition, he was voted class president by his peers in the previous school year.
“He’s a superstar,” Novak said about Danny.
Space Camp runs from Sept. 26-30.
Cookie sale to benefit Sunrise School!
A sweet new way to support the efforts of Sunrise School has come to Irwin!
Biondi Biscotti on Route 130 (beside Alison Biondi's Gymnastics) in Westmoreland County will donate 100% of chocolate chip cookie sales to Sunrise School, an AIU-operated special education school in Monroeville.
The generous effort from the Biondi family is just one of many the Biondis have made for Sunrise staff and students. For decades, Biondi Lincoln in Monroeville has assisted the school in its holiday celebration efforts, including an annual visit from Mr. and Mrs. Claus just before the winter break.
In addition, the Monroeville-based Biondi Lincoln dealership has helped secure grants for new playground equipment for the school.
Louis Biondi, Jr. credits Vera Perry, a retired Sunrise School aide, for much of the donations made by the family over the years. Her longtime advocacy efforts on behalf of students at Sunrise School brought it to his attention.
"She's an angel on Earth," Biondi said. "She's really attached to the students and the mission of the school," he said.
Chocolate chip cookies at Biondi Biscotti are $1. To purchase, stop by Biondi Biscotti at 4066 PA-130, Irwin, PA 15642. Business hours are Monday-Friday 4-7 p.m. and Saturday 7 a.m. - 1 p.m.
Photo Gallery: First Day of School!
Teachers from across our three AIU-operated special education eagerly welcomed students into the classroom for the start of the 2021-22 school year!
Given the inclement weather over the past few weeks, a fair respite occurred Tuesday morning, Aug. 31 during student arrivals. In addition to the warm welcome, students got right to work in the classroom. Please check out photos from our three schools from Tuesday's celebrations.
Welcome back! We are so excited to have you!
Photo Gallery: Teachers Gear Up For A New School Year!
We are less than a week away from the start of a new school year and our teachers are hard at work preparing for your child's arrival!
Over the past week, teachers from AIU-operated Special Education Schools have engaged in crucial programs including crisis training and learning updated state health and safety protocols, in addition to workforce development related to their specialized fields. Watch them in action in the above-noted gallery.
Our teachers are excited to bring their new skills back the classroom next Tuesday, Aug. 31!
Welcome to Sunrise, Mr. Clay Stone!
Sunrise School is pleased to announce the addition of Mr. Clay Stone to the school’s administration as assistant principal. Mr. Stone will join Sunrise School principal Mrs. Marisa Esposto, who previously held the assistant principal position. His first day at Sunrise was on Wednesday, Aug. 4, just in time for the new school year.
Mr. Stone has spent his entire career in the realm of special education since graduating with a degree in Collaborative Special Education from the University of Alabama in 2014. Since then, Mr. Stone has worked at the primary, secondary and post-secondary levels in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and most recently, as a life skills support teacher at the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Creating Individualized Transitions for Youth (CITY) special education program.
Mr. Stone holds a master's in Special Education in Severe Disabilities from the University of Alabama and obtained a principal certification from Point Park University in 2020.
Please join us in welcoming Clay Stone to Sunrise and the AIU!
Photo Gallery: Congratulations Class of 2021!
Congratulations to the graduating Class of 2021! More than two-doze students at AIU-operated Sunrise, Pathfinder and Mon Valley schools held limited in-person ceremonies. The joyous occasion was also livestreamed online for everyone to enjoy from home..
Archived broadcasts for each ceremony may be viewed below:
Photo Gallery: Sunrise School Virtual Superhero 5K
The 6th annual Sunrise School Virtual Superhero 5K was a massive success! At least 67 people joined from their communities to support school activities throughout the year and raised more than $5,241. Thanks to all who donated and went out of their way to support our students! Check out some photos of the event!
Photo Gallery: Mon Valley Talent Show!
Mon Valley School held its annual Talent Show last month and it was not hard to find talent!
While some students sang their hearts out, others danced to their favorite songs. We had a ballerina and a contemporary dancer this year. Mon Valley also had their first bass guitar solo, while another student made us laugh with some awesome knock-knock jokes. Mon Valley’s Talent Show also included an impressionist and a magician with an awesome card trick.
Everyone cheered as each student showed off their talent. Some staff reached for the Kleenex as they teared up, watching some of their longtime students perform their passions. Mon Valley Principal Dr. Richard Dowell even managed to help some students cook up some Purple Stew during this year’s Talent Show!
A shout out to the Talent Show Committee for all their hard work and commitment to make sure the students were able to show off their talent this year.
Photo Gallery: A Surprise Visit From Iceburgh and the Chick-fil-A cow!
Boy were our students surprised! As a symbol of appreciation, Chick-fil-A Pittsburgh restaurants and the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation joined forces to visit all three AIU-operated schools and provide our students with tasty take-home meals and prize packs! Earlier in the day, Chick-fil-A delivered dozens of chicken biscuits and fruit cups from Chick-fil-A for our teachers for breakfast. In the afternoon, Iceburgh and the Chick-fil-A cow delivered food (as well as special merchandise) to Mon Valley, Pathfinder and Sunrise for students! Thanks again to Chick-fil-A Pittsburgh restaurants and the Pittsburgh Pens Foundation for their generosity!
Photo Gallery: 100 Days of School!
We made it! Is anyone surprised? Students and teachers at Pathfinder and Sunrise schools celebrated the 100-day milestone recently and marked the occasion with celebratory shirts and activities. Check out the festivities in this photo gallery!
Photo Gallery: Happy Holidays!
Asthe holiday season drew nearer, our schools celebrated with the help of Santas elves at Sunrise School and a virtual visit by Santa and Mrs. Claus! Enjoy this photo gallery full of holiday cheer and we will see everyone when classes resume on Monday, Jan. 4.
Introducing The AIU Class of 2020
This has been a year unlike any other before it in the history of AIU special education programming. Our students, staff and administrators were unexpectedly challenged and rose to the occasion. And now, as the school year ends, we have the opportunity to celebrate our many graduates who excelled no matter what obstacles they faced.
We did so a little differently this year, in the era of COVID-19. There was no walk to the main stage; instead, cars were decorated and paraded home to home as staff handed out caps, gowns and diplomas. Private Zoom meetings replaced packed gymnasiums. Despite those differences, the fact remains that the proud tradition of talented graduates at each school has continued.
We are so incredibly proud of all of our students. We wish them the best of luck in their future endeavors. Because of this accomplishment, they will ALWAYS be a part of our program!
“Congratulations, Class of 2020. From all the persons at Allegheny Intermediate Unit, I extend our best wishes today and for all your days yet to come. Our absolute faith is with you in making a tomorrow in which your goals are realized and our community is made stronger because of your contributions. We are proud of you." -- Dr. James Palmiero, Assistant Executive Director for Special Education & Pupil Services
Mon Valley School Graduates
Devon LaRue, Bethel Park
Haley Beavers, Steel Valley
Brittany Lippert, PA Cyber
JR Livingston, Elizabeth Forward
Tyler Vates, Baldwin
Jordan Claridy, Moon
Tuyen Nguyen, Woodland Hills
Kortney Schultz, West Mifflin
Michael Shoup, Sto Rox
Fran Vidal, Steel Valley
“It is truly amazing to see how each of you have grown and matured while at Mon Valley. We are extremely proud of you.
Congratulations on accomplishing this milestone in your life’s journey!”
Dr. Richard Dowell, Mon Valley Principal
The Pathfinder School Graduates
Stephen Bollman, Shaler Area
Bryan Bowe, West Allegheny
Nick Boyd, South Park
Hannah Fox, Montour
C.J. Helmick, Avonworth
Michael Henshaw, Shaler Area
Jonah Hill, Montour
Rachel Knox, East Allegheny
Devin Kohl, Sto-Rox
Samantha Konyk, Canon-McMillan
“Congratulations to the Class of 2020! It has been a pleasure getting to know all of you and watching you learn and grow.
Good luck in all of your future endeavors!”
Mr. Nicholas Fratto, The Pathfinder School Principal
Sunrise School Graduates
Jasmine Adotey, Gateway
Tekai Afoxe, Wilkinsburg
Daijah Pierce, Wilkinsburg
Matthew Kolat, Woodland Hills
Mshindi Njau, Gateway
“Congratulations to each of you on this remarkable achievement.
We are very proud of your accomplishments!”
Mrs. Lucy McDonough, Sunrise School Principal
A Day in the Life: OT/PT Division
How do you make a hands-on job virtual? It’s a tough question, for sure, but one that has been answered by the AIU OT/PT division.
When Governor Tom Wolf closed all Pennsylvania school buildings March 13, the mandate did not stop the learning. It did, however, require an abundance of creativity as our therapists had to pivot from face-to-face interactions to virtual platforms so that they could continue meeting the needs of their students.
How have they done it? To find out, we interviewed the talented and innovative AIU therapists who work with the West Mifflin School District. Shannon Hurley, OTR/L, Ginger Taylor, MPT, and Jennifer Rickard, COTA/L gave us a peek inside their daily agendas to show how the AIU is connecting with its students and districts remotely.
KISS FM Morning Radio Show Features BVISP Student Emma Papariella
Emma Papariella has been a fan of the popular 96.1 KISS FM morning show featuring DJs Mikey and Big Bob since she was in elementary school. She has been tuning in and laughing along whenever she has a chance for about a decade. She wasn't able to listen-in March 31, but she had a good reason: Emma was part of the show!
Emma won the “Spectacular Super Special Stand Out Student Award” for the month of March and was invited to appear on the show via webcam, where she was interviewed by none other than two of her favorite morning DJs, Mikey and Big Bob.
“They are hilarious,” said Emma. “I listen to them whenever I can.”
In her true fashion, Emma used her platform to talk about the numerous programs and organizations in which she is involved. Emma, who has a significant visual impairment, is a student in the AIU’s Blind and Visually Impaired Support Program (BVISP). She attends Woodland Hills High School where she is a junior and the vice president of the student council. That’s just the tip of the iceberg for her extracurriculars. She is the student editor of the BVISP’s Outlook Magazine; a part of Young Lives, which allows teen moms to attend meetings while Emma watches their babies for free; and is involved in a host of athletics for Envision Blind Sports. Last spring, she was invited to play hockey with her teammates who are also visually impaired on the ice at PPG Paints Arena during the intermission of a Penguins game.
Emma was nominated for the award by the transition coordinator at Woodland Hills, Mr. Bob Ralston.
“Emma is a top student, community leader at such a young age and an advocate for people with disabilities both at her school and within her home community.” Mr. Ralston wrote in his nomination. “I can think of no one more deserving than Emma for this wonderful recognition."
A person like Emma, whose glass is always half full, was the perfect awardee for this moment in time. Because all schools in the area are closed due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, Emma was the first student to accept the award via a video chat. Normally, the radio show comes to the school of the student for a pep rally and more. For Emma, she received her medal, t-shirt and a $2,500 check that will go towards college. The alternate approach didn’t dampen her spirits at all.
“I’m always the type of person that tries to find the good in everything,” Emma said. “It was an opportunity to spread the good news around and I loved it.”
After the show aired, Emma’s social media accounts took off. In that moment, she took the time to send the interview to all of the teachers, including Mr. Ralston and AIU vision teacher Alissa Falcone.
“I emailed it to a bunch of my teachers that I had in the past or have currently,” she said. “It said, ‘You guys helped me win this award.’ I wanted to congratulate them, too. It was an award celebrating all of us.”
Mon Valley's Got Talent!
Mon Valley hosted its annual talent show Friday, March 6 and they had it all. There was singing, dancing, comedy, magic and plenty more during the afternoon performance. Check out the photo gallery of some of the many acts that performed to a packed gymnasium!
Mon Valley Hands Out Golden Hammer Awards
The Golden Hammer awards are a long-running tradition at Mon Valley School. The accolades are doled out each spring to exemplary students across the numerous vocational programs. This year, as was the case in many years, a host of students had made it their goal to take home an award and saw their hard work pay off.
A cool new twist to this year’s event is that the awards were created exclusively by Mon Valley students. Both the plaque and t-shirt received by each winner was designed and made by students.
We are so proud of all of our students for their continued hard work and dedication to being the best that they can be! Here are the 2020 winners of the Golden Hammer awards (program of study in parentheses):
- Carlee Allen (Employment Oriented Home Economics)
- Ronald Burke (Computer Science)
- Carson Butler (Auto Mechanics)
- Janaijha Chandler (Employment Oriented Home Economics & Nurse’s Aide)
- Jordon Claridy (Building & Grounds)
- Chelsey Gilbert ( Materials Handling)
- Malique Handy (Computer Science)
- Raecale Horne (Building & Grounds)
- Amere Jackson (Food Service)
- Andrew Karnack (Food Service)
- Austin Laird (Industrial Production & Maintenance)
- Anthony Magill (Industrial Production & Maintenance)
- Zach McCanless (Industrial Production & Maintenance)
- Justin Mihalic (Auto Mechanics)
- Kortney Schultz (Computer Science)
- Zachery Shaffer (Materials Handling)
- Michael Shoup (Materials Handling)
- Noah Sobeck (Food Service)
- Austin Richey (Food Service)
- Cory Roland (Building & Grounds)
- Courtney Woolheater (Employment Oriented Home Economics & Nurse’s Aide)
Smartboard Integration Provides Innovative Learning in Sunrise Classrooms
An infusion of technology is changing the way students learn and educators teach at the AIU’s Sunrise School.
The addition of brand new Promethean smartboards has accelerated learning while engaging students with the kind of modern technology that surrounds them in everyday life. The smartboards consolidate numerous traditional classroom necessities, such as a chalkboard, projector and television into a convenient all-in-one system that streamlines lessons. Think of it as a giant, educational tablet with more bells and whistles.
Students can swipe a fingertip on the board to mimic writing on a chalkboard, open an application, check the daily calendar and even create their own code. Educational offerings and curriculum are structured through the board. Programs like Hooda Math and Code.org offer standards-aligned lessons such as math and computer science through hands-on interaction.
The new technology also has streamlined the teaching process. Ms. Mikayla Nolfi, a secondary learning support teacher at Sunrise, has a spinning wheel application programmed with the names of each student. Rather than asking for a raised hand, she can give the wheel a click so that it spins and lands on a student at random. Having the ability to play a quick video or produce an image that supports a lesson in seconds accelerates the learning process and results in more educational opportunities.
The board also enhances reward opportunities. While leisure applications are generally omitted from the programming because the product is geared toward educating, there is an ability to play favorite songs or watch video clips after exhibiting good behavior.
It’s a new style of teaching and learning born from familiarity. The students and staff are already used to swiping and using application on tablets and smart phones. Bringing that into the daily classroom plan required a very small learning curve and at the same time expanded educational offerings.
Mon Valley Students Show Their Work at STEAM Showcase
The table display was a cornucopia of innovation. From t-shirts, to picture frames, to keychains to animations, it was all there. And it all came from the same place.
That would be the newly-developed TEAMS Lab at Mon Valley.
Students and staff spent the day January 17 at the STEAM Showcase, an annual event that highlights the transformation in STEAM learning occurring in classrooms across the region. It was an opportunity for the 23 schools that were recipients of the AIU’s STEAM Catalyst grants to display their innovations as nearly 1,000 visitors ranging from educators to legislators observed and learned from students and fellow teachers. Read more about the event here or see a video highlight here.
Through grant funding, Mon Valley has developed a learning environment that is engaging and immersive for students with special needs in three main areas: computer science and coding; engineering and design; and graphic arts/digital fabrication. The TEAMS model inspires special educators to rethink, redesign and re-envision what special education is in order to realize every student’s potential through differentiated STEAM and computer science lessons and assessments.
Mon Valley developed a hub with the latest technologies that allow students to code, laser engrave, 3-D print, work with robotics, design graphics and much more. The difference it has made is striking, said Adam, a high-school aged student at the school, who enjoyed showing off his projects.
“Last year, there was no TEAMS Lab,” said Adam. “This year, we have a full-fledged laboratory with all kinds of cool gadgets. It’s filled to the brim like stuffing in a turkey.”
The lab is about more than the latest technology. It has instilled in students the passion and drive to chase their dreams; to learn how to fail and move forward; and to grow as students. Mr. Rob DeFillippo, a teacher at the school who is one of the local pioneers of STEAM-based learning in special education schools, noted that he also has seen drastic changes in student personalities, like students engaging with the crowd at their table. He has witnessed firsthand how empowering students has allowed them to not only flourish academically, but also develop the confidence and social skills that will also be required when they transition to careers.
“Seeing students excited to learn and driven to gain knowledge through self-directed learning is very rewarding,” said Mr. DeFillippo. “I have seen students grow and take ownership of their learning and it’s great to see. Giving student access and opportunity to learning environments that they did not have has been our motivation.”
On The Road to Code: How One Event Inspired STEAM Learning At Two Schools
A “Day of Code” made a lasting impression at Sunrise and Pathfinder schools. After each school participated in a school-wide event that challenged and educated students in STEAM learning, coding and so much more, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It helped me learn like a genius,” said Sunrise student Leah.
From forming simple patterns to more complex tasks, such as coding a dance party, the skill level required for the activities ran the gamut and allowed for school-wide participation.
"Each of the activities were planned so that all students would be involved," said Sunrise secondary learning support teacher Mikayla Nolfi. "Some of the activities were simply drawing lines so that robots would follow them or piecing together little gears to form larger objects. Each activity, like the dance party, was adapted based on the difficulty level that each group would be able to complete. Every student was able to participate because each station was thought out. Classrooms were also placed specifically in stations that fit the needs of their students. Every single activity could be adapted so that each student was able to code.”
Many of the activities were student-driven, which added another layer of challenge for each class. The students would be given a prompt, such as navigating a Sphero bot across the room remotely via a tablet, and the rest was up to them.
“It was fun using the robots to learn,” said Sunrise student Katrina. Her classmate Sebastian added, “It helped me be more creative.”
Everyone was immersed in the experience, yet remained aware that they were gaining valuable knowledge throughout the day.
"It made learning fun," said Daimon, who attends Sunrise. "I like to be creative."
It wasn’t all technical, either. Coding and STEAM exercises usually conjure images of high-tech, futuristic learning. But that is not always true and there were plenty of “unplugged” lessons. Students learned numerous skills such as how to recognize patterns, think outside of the box, solve problems, think critically, understand the relation of concepts to one another and reflect. These are life lessons that everyone needs to learn.
The Day of Code opened up new pathways to learning. Both Pathfinder and Sunrise are looking into weekly STEAM activities to continue exploring the educational possibilities.
"My students absolutely loved the day of code," said Sunrise elementary autistic support teacher Jessica Scranton. "They even said it was ‘The best day at school ever!’”
Photo Gallery: Happy Holidays!
During the final days before the winter break, our schools celebrated the season with visits from Santa, reindeer petting, carriage rides, dances, performances and more. Enjoy this photo gallery full of holiday cheer and we will see everyone when classes resume on Thursday, January 2.
Sunrise Teacher Continues to Expand Reach
Being an educator means having a positive impact on the lives of the students you teach. For Sunrise School elementary autistic support teacher Brian Russell McHenry, it can also mean impacting students around the globe.
Mr. McHenry recently was introduced to two fellow educators from South America and brought them to Sunrise for observation and discussion. They had traveled here specifically to see quality special education in action.
The trip was organized through the special education department of Mr. McHenry's alma mater, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. After graduating in 2010, Mr. McHenry has remained close with his former instructors and they reached out to him when this unique opportunity arose. Mr. McHenry's reputation as a model teacher running an excellent program made him an easy choice for the project.
Annelot Themen and Meriam May, both college teachers from Suriname, which is located on the northeastern coast of South America, wanted to take new ideas back to their country and teachers. Students in Suriname currently do not have effective curriculum or teacher training guidelines.
During the four-hour visit, Mr. McHenry gave his guests a tour of Sunrise, allowing them to explore the possibilities of special education. They came away impressed by how much hands-on learning the students are afforded through home economics, food service, industrial arts and more. The manner in which students engaged in their learning and the amount of support staff and related services such as nurses, speech language pathologists and occupational and physical therapists were also noted.
Dr. Migjanka and Dr. Becky Knickelbein, both from the IUP Department of Special Education, have been working with college teachers in Suriname to develop the first-ever special education teacher training. These educators have had no training in special education, but now have the opportunity to obtain a bachelor’s degree through collaboration with IUP. Most of their students with special needs, even learning support, are placed in special schools. Expectations are low for these students and the hope is to change that. The schools are third world and a lot of work needs to be done, however the drive and desire to create better educational opportunities is there. The staff from Suriname would like to send their teachers to the United States in the future and even mentioned they would like more training at Sunrise School.
Congratulations to Mr. McHenry and Sunrise for their ongoing efforts, innovation and leadership in their field that strives to make the world a better place!
Deaf/Hard of Hearing Social Events Bring Everyone Together
It’s after hours on a Friday night at the AIU office and the sound of children laughing and cheering carries through the halls. After pizza and a movie, the kids are playing games while some of the parents break off into groups to talk amongst themselves. Teachers and staff interact with their students and spend time getting to know the parents.
They have all come together for one reason: To support and celebrate our students who are deaf or hard of hearing.
For the past 15 years, the AIU Deaf and Hard of Hearing Support Program has hosted inclusive social events in a fun, relaxed and inviting environment that helps everyone get to know each other.
The most recent social was held Nov. 22 at the AIU. Some families are regulars at the events, and there are always new faces as well. One of those was Drew Murphy, whose daughter attends Dormont Elementary School and receives AIU services.
“I thought it was really awesome,” said Mr. Murphy. “It was great for the kids to get together and know people who are similar to them. The other parents were really welcoming.”
Months of planning goes into each event, spearheaded by a committee of five teachers who get to work brainstorming the year’s socials -- usually one in the fall and another in the spring -- as soon as they return from summer break in August. This year’s group of Murphy Bennett, Maria Bennis, Meghan Cakmur, Lenette Sostmann and Barbara Taylor put together an event featuring pizza, a movie and a fall festival of games. The students, who are used to having to adapt to the world around them, get to enjoy a tailored experience, as the entire event is planned with them in mind. The movie, “Spookley the Square Pumpkin” extolled a message that our diversity can help make the world a better place. The movie was fully accessible as it was captioned and interpreted in sign language.
Next up was a fall festival complete with kindness-themed art projects; ring toss around candy corn-painted cones; and pumpkin bowling, among other fun and festivities.
Family members, including parents and siblings, get in on the fun and also talk amongst themselves. In a room full of families that share a commonality, they are able to converse and share their experiences with one another.
From the beginning stages of planning to cleaning up after the event, there is so much to be done. It’s all worth it when our staff establishes a meaningful connection with both students and families that results in the best educational experience.
“It is a relaxed, enjoyable time for parents to talk about their children outside the lens of academics,” said program director Mrs. Jeanine Esch. “It strengthens relationships and builds trust so that when we do meet in the school setting to develop programs with the educational team, there is trust established. All this leads to more meaningful planning and learning for the students.”
Grant for new playground equipment gifted to Sunrise School
Sunrise School received an early Christmas gift after its annual holiday event at the Biondi Lincoln dealership.
After a morning filled with caroling, meeting Mr. and Mrs. Claus, and gifts, there was one more present left to open: a check for $3,000 that will go towards new playground equipment!
Each year, the Biondi compnay graciously hosts our students, who look forward to the event. Biondi also secures a grant through Enterprise Rent-A-Car that is given to the school so that it can upgrade playground equipment. The outdoor area is used for school recess and special activities, such as the fall festival and summer water play day.
Thank you once again to Biondi Lincoln for its generosity! The Tribune-Review was there to cover the event. Get the whole story here.
Overcoming Apraxia: How a Former Student Has Thrived After Clearing Speech Hurdles
In a classroom unlike any other, Gabriel Bloomfield developed the basics of speech and communication. The talk nowadays is about his success after working through an early childhood speech impairment.
Gabriel is a former student of the Edgewood Speech Classroom, an early iteration of the AIU Primary Expressions Classrooms that improve speech and communication in kindergarten and first grade students, so that they can transition and continue their education with their peers. It’s a turn-key program that unlocks the challenges of speech for young students.
“Thanks to the program, I have been able to express myself clearly and create deeper relationships with people around that I would not have been able to otherwise,” said Gabriel.
Make no mistake, Gabriel's drive to succeed propelled him to where he is today. The Edgewood classroom simply helped get him on the right path when there were few resources for students with his needs. Gabriel suffered from Apraxia, a neurological speech disorder that affects pronunciation and, as a result, muddles speech and pronunciation.
In the Edgewood classroom, Gabriel learned how to produce specific sounds and improve his fine motor skills. He also gained vital social skills.
“They were very patient and did not make us feel different than the other students,” Gabriel said. “I was able to communicate better and have confidence in my ability to communicate with others.”
Now 27 years old, Gabriel is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He works for CVS Speciality as a medical billing specialist. In his free time, he enjoys watching sports and staying active. In fact, we first caught up with Gabriel at the Walk for Apraxia at Highmark Stadium in Station Square last year. His easy-going smile and gentle demeanor were on display as he chatted with AIU Speech Language Supervisor Eileen Cirelli.
When he thinks back on his time in the classroom, Gabriel’s memories are like any other student in any other classroom. He recalls trips to the library and school plays, such as “The Wizard of Oz” and “Cinderfella.”
That blend of childhood whimsy combined with real-world results are cornerstones of the Primary Expressions Classrooms. Every day, our staff and students work together to create that magic.
“Without the speech and language program through the AIU, Gabe would have regressed instead of making the astounding progress needed in the early years of development,” said Gabriel’s mother, Diane Bloomfield. “A regular kindergarten and first grade teacher and classroom could never provide the attention, therapies, and understanding that children with Apraxia need. This program establishes a solid base to grow on. We are forever grateful.”
BVISP Student Leads The Way On White Cane Day
Tiraji is a third-grade student at Dr. Cleveland Steward Jr. Elementary in the Gateway School District. Because of a degenerative eye condition, her vision has weakened and will most likely continue to diminish. When she needs assistance, there are two things she can lean on: her big sister Nijah and her white cane.
To honor White Cane Awareness Day, Tiraji and her sister went out into the world and experienced together how vital the white cane is to a person with a visual impairment, and how help from those around you can be instrumental. White Cane Awareness Day has occurred on Oct. 15 every year since 1964 in order to celebrate the tool of independence and also honor all that has been achieved by the blind and visually impaired.
Tiraji has persistent hyperplastic primary vitreous and glaucoma in her right eye. Follow along this photo blog to see and read about the techniques that Tiraji uses and taught her sister.
When not in use, the long, white cane can conveniently be folded up so that it is easier to carry or transport. When extended, the cane leads a visually impaired person and alerts them to any changes in the walking surface, such as going from smooth concrete to chunky bricks, by using vibration, feel and sound.
The two-point touch technique is when the user taps the cane from side to side as they progress along a walking surface. This is an effective technique, because if the cane was constantly making contact with the surface, it could get caught in sidewalk cracks or other obstacles.
Going up and down stairs can be more challenging and the white cane can lead the way, whether going up or down. By utilizing her cane, Tiraji can gain perception and create a mental vision of a flight of stairs.
Sometimes Tiraji will need someone to help navigate her surroundings, and Nijah is happy to help! She learned the human guide technique by holding Tiraji’s arm just above the elbow to lead her in the right direction.
The sisters also practiced crossing the street, where other senses come into play. Hearing helps negotiate crossing a street by alerting Tiraji to vehicles coming from the sides. Once the street is safe to cross, the white cane again leads the way. Having someone with her will help Tiraji get a better feel for what is happening around her.
We are so proud of Tiraji for teaching Nijah these vital orientation and mobility techniques! There’s no doubt that Tiraji and Nijah will experience challenges in the future. By absorbing everything she has learned and imparting it on the ones closest to her, Tiraji is taking the initiative and setting herself up to be successful even when challenges arise.
Photo Gallery: Halloween Fun!
Last week, we welcomed several new students to class. They were super heroes, sharks and princesses ... or so it seemed! Actually, Halloween festivities were out in full force. Each of our three special education schools celebrated in their own way with parades, dance parties and socials. From students to staff to even the classroom pets, everyone got in the spirit. Click through our gallery to get a glimpse of the fun!
BVISP Students Get A Feel For Fall Festivities
A trip to the pumpkin patch is the quintessential fall field trip. The beauty of the changing leaves and fall tones are classically picturesque. On a recent trip to Trax Farms, the students in our Blind and Visually Impaired Support Program took in the beauty of nature in their own way.
The October 21 festivities organized by vision teacher Jackie Bearley, included a tour of the market, a hayride through the farm and fresh-pressed apple cider as a treat afterward. Everything was adapted to accommodate for students with blindness or low vision. Students used their touch, hearing, smell and more to get the full fall effect. Parents and other AIU staff joined in on the fun as well.
As the guide worked the group through a tour of the market place, they paused at different areas to take it all in. There was the mechanical hum of a conveyor belt that ran fresh apples through a washer that, if you were close enough, lifted a fine mist into the air that could be felt on the skin. The scent of apples, fresh vegetables and other goodies could be smelled throughout the market.
The group then walked through a chilly room-sized refrigerator and onto the following stop.
Next up was to learn about some of the many different varieties of gourds. The plants offered plenty of ridges and bumps for the students to run their fingers over to get a feel for the unique shapes and textures. The long and lean snake gourd even had dried seeds inside of it so that when the students shook it, they could hear and feel the vibrations as the seeds rattled within.
The last portion of the market tour was a stop at a small indoor bee hive. Talk about a buzz of excitement! As the bees went about making their honey behind a glass enclosure, the students learned about the process through enlarged flash cards that were passed around.
There was still more fun to be had on the hayride tour of the farm. The fresh, earthy smell of the hay bales seats filled the open air as the tractor gently pulled the group through live animals and patches of fruits and vegetables. The friendly driver spoke through the intercom and gave a detailed description of each area as he passed by.
The evening ended with a glass of fresh apple cider, an apple and a pumpkin for each student. It was fun way for the students to experience the fall festivities while also putting to use the skills they have developed while working with AIU staff, such as orientation and mobility, as well as social skills.
School Safety is a Top Priority
The safety and well-being of our students and staff are of the utmost importance. That's why our schools practice and plan using proven training methods.
It is an unfortunate reality that schools need to be aware of and prepared in the event a dangerous situation occurs. One way that our schools prepare themselves is by utilizing the Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate training, also known as A.L.I.C.E.
This training is utilized by schools and organizations across the globe. Because the students at our three schools for exceptional children – Mon Valley, Sunrise and The Pathfinder School – may need additional accommodations to support their physical, cognitive or emotional disabilities, the training can be tailored to fit their needs.
Mon Valley school recently conducted an A.L.I.C.E training. The teachers and staff know the students best, so they decided how to approach the training with their students.
“With our unique population of students at Mon Valley, it is important to teach students how to be prepared, but not scare or traumatize them at the same time,” said Mon Valley principal Dr. Richard Dowell.
Individual teachers were given a book called “I’m Not Scared…I’m Prepared! Because I Know All About A.L.I.C.E.” to use with their students.
Some went over the book with students. Others did the same and went a step further by practicing barricading the doors to counter an offender.
Training is an ongoing process. Staff was trained in four different scenarios during an in-service at the beginning of the school year. Each month during the school year, they run through a unique drill that addresses a specific situation. Sometimes it will involve only staff and other times it will involve the entire school.
Once the drill is completed, the school’s certified A.L.I.C.E. trainers meet to debrief and then meet again as a staff. Teachers can also decide to debrief with their students if they feel it is appropriate.
The A.L.I.C.E method differs from previous response techniques, such as lockdowns, by empowering staff and their students to assess the situation and determine the best path towards safety.
“After going through the new training, it is clear that the old way of hiding in the past was too passive,” said Dr. Dowell. “The A.L.I.C.E. training gives students and staff options to take back their chances of survival. After running through scenarios, it is clear why hiding is not the best option. The scenario-type trainings and drills put things into a better perspective, and show trainees why the old passive way is not necessarily the best route to take.”
Another Successful Golf Outing For The Pathfinder School
The Pathfinder School's annual golf outing took place Sept. 23, as golfers filled the fairways and took off on a scramble as part of the school benefit.
It was the 11th annual event, and it has only gotten bigger. This year's event was hosted by the South Hills Country Club, where the event has called home for the past several years.
The outing, which also includes a delicious brunch and dinner, as well as a raffle of various items, including gift baskets and a big screen television, has provided Pathfinder with necessary classroom tools and building upgrades that benefit the students and staff.
Through the years, the event has afforded Pathfinder the opportunity to expand programs and services. It helped to provide the school sensory room and greenhouse. The outing also raised funds that have provided iPads, audiology and speech equipment, classroom materials, light covers and more.
Golfers and attendees of the event include current Pathfinder families, alumni families and more. Each event tends to include numerous returnees as well as new golfers who contribute to the growth of the event.
Planning for the outing is a year-round activity. The big screen TV was actually bought during a Black Friday sale last November!
The annual golf outing is planned and organized by former Pathfinder staff members Mary Levine and Chris Woods. Their tireless work ensures that all golfers and attendees have a wonderful time and continue to participate in the event. Ms. Woods' husband recommended a golf outing for a fundraiser more than a decade ago and it continues to go strong today!
It’s good to be back
There was a buzz of excitement at all three of our schools for exceptional children on August 26 for the first day of school. Students at The Pathfinder School, Sunrise and Mon Valley were greeted by staff as they got off their buses and caught up over breakfast. Soon enough, they all settled into their classrooms and the learning began anew. Check out this quick video to see it all come together.
We are looking forward to telling the stories of our incredible students, talented staff and awesome schools throughout this year. Check back regularly for updates!
Natalie Panaia Helps Set National Record for Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Fundraising
Earlier this year, AIU educational audiologist Natalie Panaia was selected to be a member of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s 50 Finest to raise money to fight the disease. Natalie is now a member of an even more exclusive group after her class became national-record holders for the most funds raised.
Natalie was honored during the 24th annual gala event Aug. 17 at the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh. Her group raised more than half a million dollars -- $543,466, to be exact -- to set a new standard when it comes to 50 Finest fundraising. They made such an impact that mayor Bill Peduto declared the date as “Pittsburgh 50 Finest Day” in the City of Pittsburgh.
Natalie’s class trailed the national record on the final day leading up the gala. During the event, they were told that they had surpassed the previous mark.
“Everyone was jumping up and down and screaming,” said Natalie. “It was a very big celebration.”
Natalie raised $16,331.13 through a series of events and ticket sales to the gala. Her events included a fundraiser at Chick-fil-a, boot camp class, a comedy show, and a happy hour. About 50 people filled five tables at the event after buying event tickets to support Natalie.
It was a whirlwind six months for Natalie in which she worked tirelessly to raise funds. She was featured in articles in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Business Times. No matter how much recognition she earned, the best part for Natalie was making an impact on the lives of others.
“It was so rewarding,” said Natalie. “Not only did I meet great people and friends, but meeting the families of the people with cystic fibrosis was the best of all. You actually see the benefit of the fundraising we are doing. We’re trying to make more tomorrows for these families. That’s what it is all about.”
For anyone that supported Natalie through a donation or otherwise, she has a simple message.
“I would just like to thank everyone for their support and generosity throughout this unforgettable journey,” she said. “It truly was amazing and I will remember this experience for the rest of my life.”
Summer Vocation: AIU Staff Presented at Various Conferences During Their Break
Bringing professional development to our fellow educators is a core principal of the AIU. Our staff took that to heart this summer, as presentations at prestigious state and national conferences included the voices of our experienced, innovative and talented staff.
Speech Language Supervisors Eileen Cirelli and Heidy Frycke teamed up with Maria Vassilaros, Angela Markwood and Nicole Zielmanski to deliver a presentation focusing on the success of the Primary Expressions classroom. The immersive learning experience for kindergarten and first grade students has helped unlock severe speech challenges for young students and allow them to integrate back into their classrooms by second grade.
Mrs. Cirelli and her team decided to get everyone involved with an emphasis on audience participation. With a two-hour time slot, there was plenty of time to speak about their accomplishments while allowing the participants to speak freely about their own experiences. Just like in their classrooms, these educators had their audience speaking up.
"Each team member brought unique experience to the presentation, which made it more of a discussion than a lecture," said Mrs. Cirelli. "The presentation was designed to promote audience participation and that worked very well."
The presentation titled, "A Pittsburgh Success Story" resonated near and far. The group of attendees included representatives from Illinois, Idaho, Ohio, Haiti and Arabia. The discussion period kept coming back to one question: How can a program like Primary Expressions be implemented in new places? Mrs. Cirelli and her staff were there to help.
"Given that our presentation was geared toward a national audience, we hoped to share what was unique about our classroom so that participants might be inspired to consider non-traditional service delivery methods," said Mrs. Cirelli. “Our final conversations revolved around possible ways to develop programs similar to our classroom."
Mon Valley teachers Rob DeFillippo and Beth Whitney traveled to Harrisburg June 27th to present at the Pennsylvania Computer Science for All Summit. Their presentation titled, "Making Made Special" highlighted the work being done at Mon Valley to bring equity and inclusion to the special education students they serve.
"I wanted my audience to think about how their schools accommodate students with severe cognitive and emotional disabilities with accessing computer science and STEAM learning," said Mr. DeFillippo, who also filmed a segment for a CSforPGH event in June. "I wanted them to think about how we can build authentic learning experiences for all students."
Presenting is also about showcasing the talents of our students who, when given the opportunities and resources, really shine.
“I present because I am proud of the amazing things my students are doing and creating,” said Ms. Whitney. “I have seen such success with my students who have emotional disabilities; their disruptive behaviors are decreasing as their engagement on their work improves. I want educators and administrators to see how computer science and STEAM education has benefited my students and their education.”
After their presentation, they utilized Google Forms for audience feedback. They also used the opportunity to hold discussions with like-minded peers.
"Any time that I have the opportunity to collaborate, listen and learn from others is an opportunity for me to grow as an educator," Mr. DeFillippo said. "These experiences will continue to help me grow both professionally and personally and I look forward to learning and expanding my work in the upcoming school year.”
Educating others -- whether young or old, student or professional -- is in our staff's nature and what they do best. We could not be more proud of their accomplishments!
Congratulations to our graduates!
The tassels have moved from right to left! All three of our special education school celebrated their graduating classes the first week of June.
Throughout the course of their education, our students have learned a tremendous amount. That education continued at their respective ceremonies when AIU assistant executive director for special education and pupil services Dr. James Palmiero preached three words to the students as they embark on their futures:
Power of change.
Dr. Palmiero urged the students to be open to what's ahead and to continue learning and growing along the way. One thing that will never change is that these students will always be known as graduates of our programs, and that we are incredibly proud of them all.
The graduates from each school are:
The Pathfinder School
Mon Valley School
7 months out: The Making of Outlook Magazine
How do you make a print magazine for individuals with visual impairments?
That is the challenge that has been presented to our Blind and Visually Impaired Support Program (BVISP) team for the past decade.
Outlook Magazine is the department's annual magazine that highlights student achievement. It began as a way to showcase the students’ written work and evolved to a broader scope that includes the entire expanded core curriculum. Projects this year displayed orientation/mobility work, use of assistive technology, Braille reading, STEAM/STEM projects, leisure activities and more.
To up the ante, multiple versions of the publication must be produced. In addition to the standard format, editions in large print and Braille also are needed in order to meet the needs of our students.
Supervising editor Jeanine Esch, along with print and submission editors Alicia Hornberger, Naomi Yeskey, Melissa Kenderes and other staff members have their work cut out for them as the launch party event approaches. There will be food, games and presentations at the AIU Central Office to celebrate all that the students -- and staff -- have accomplished.
So how does it all come together?
The clock starts ticking
Staff members are made aware of the magazine early in the school year. The final edition must be done by the end of April so they are ready for the May 9 launch party. Submissions open in October and close in March. At that point, the look, feel and size of the publication is in flux, as the editors do not quite know how many submissions they will receive and what those submissions will focus on.
As the submission period rolls along, Outlook begins to take the form of individual pages that feature text, photos or both of each student.
It all comes down to this
As the submission deadline comes and goes, editors continue the scramble of piecing the pages together. Sometimes a submission comes in after the deadline. Other times they might want to adjust a page or move things around.
Once the final design is complete, the printing process begins. For the text versions, they are sent off to the AIU's print center and then bound into books. For the Braille versions, the text is run through a software that converts it to the Braille code. A special printer called a Braille embosser is needed so that the Braille is dimpled onto the page and visually impaired students can run their fingers over it to read.
The closer the deadline gets, the more difficult the project seems to become.
"By the end of it, you can't even see straight anymore," said Ms. Hornberger, a teacher of the visually impaired.
That final push is fueled by the next phase in which the students get to experience the joy of being in print.
An amazing accomplishment
At the AIU central office, there’s a buzz of excitement on the big day. The students and their parents are all smiles as they arrive, grab a bite to eat and socialize.
Soon enough, everyone is sitting in the conference room as the lights dim and the presentations begin. Students walk up to podium and describe their project and what it means to them. Many of their projects and hobbies are surprising or show a different side of their personality. Some of their stories make the room laugh. Others can tug at the heart strings. No matter the topic, each student has a story to tell, a story that is not bound to or defined by a visual impairment. They may have to work a little harder sometimes, but these students can reach the same goals as their sighted peers. Outlook Magazine gives them the opportunity to showcase it.
“When they get their copy and they are able to show it to their family and friends and say, 'I was in a magazine!' ... that makes it all worth it," said Ms. Yeskey.
New partnership gives Mon Valley students working experience
Mon Valley students are getting real-world work experience with an emphasis on “world.”
A new program that spans the globe makes a stop at Mon Valley, where students in the warehousing program sort and package dinnerware materials that include plates and bowls. It’s all part of a new partnership between the school and Leaf2Go, a company that turns over a new leaf on disposable dinnerware.
The Mon Valley materials handling program, which is one of seven vocational programs offered at Mon Valley, packages the materials so that orders can be fulfilled. This includes sorting each order to include the proper items and stacking them in a manner that makes the most sense for shipping. Finally, the order is plastic wrapped. They even add their own label noting that the order was packaged by Mon Valley students.
“It’s exciting to see how the students have responded to the new projects,” said Mon Valley teacher Michelle Holsopple. “Each project provides consistent opportunities for students to put into practice the skills they are learning in class. As a result, the materials handling concepts we are teaching become more relevant because the students have a chance to apply what they have learned to actual situations.”
It all starts in India, where fallen areca palm leaves are collected and then used to create the Leaf2Go series of plates and bowls. It’s an environmentally-sound and sustainable process that produces biodegradable products.
Sudha Krishnasamy is the co-founder of Leaf2Go and an advocate for students across the globe. When it came time to expand operations in the United States, Ms. Krishnasamy, who was born in India and has lived in the United States for two decades, wanted to stick with the same business philosophy.
“What we wanted to do is give business to provide opportunity to the students who are challenged,” she said. “There’s a skill they can gain and so it helps everybody. Sustainability occurs in all different ways. This is one of the aspects. This is one of those things that fulfills my dreams.”
The students gain real-world experience and sharpen their growing skill set through the program. The numerous lessons include:
- Check-in procedures when a shipment is received
- Sorting products based on size, shape, etc. for maximum efficiency
- Following verbal and written directions to complete a task
- Order picking and labeling
- Using tools such as a heat wrapper
- Safety protocols for machinery
- Preparing items for shipment
- Teamwork and communication skills
This isn’t the first time Mon Valley students have been called upon for order fulfillment. They already have a partnership within the AIU, boxing and shipping the Math and Science Collaborative’s Storytime STEM-Packs. This is yet another opportunity and one that branches out to partner with an entirely new organization.
“When someone gives us an opportunity to process their goods, they trust us to handle the products with care and package them according to their specifications,” Ms. Holsopple said. “With both projects, our partners are invested in providing a learning opportunity for the students and they work with us to support the learning process. They provide regular feedback and recognize student successes, which really helps the students to gain confidence in what they are doing well.”
Mon Valley life skills teacher Jan Rivindran is a friend of Mrs. Krishnasamy and that helped spark the initiative. Leaf2Go is a startup that originated in 2017. Sure, there have been the kinds of challenges that any young business experiences, but the Mon Valley students have been able to adjust and deliver thanks to their training.
“They have done a phenomenal job of packing and the AIU has been so kind,” said Ms. Krishnasamy. “There have been a lot of challenges through all of this, but every step of the way, the students have done a very good job.”
Express Yourself: Sensory art classes help students overcome challenges and boost their creativity
With her hand tangled in bubble wrap and dripping with paint, Megan smeared her fingertips across the papers lining the desk in front of her, leaving a colorful trail in her wake.
Rachael Lacy swerved her glance towards Megan and exclaimed, “Great job!”
No, this isn’t your ordinary art class.
Ms. Lacy is an occupational therapy assistant who works with students like Megan at the AIU’s Pathfinder School. Along with art teacher Alexia Dabat, Ms. Lacy helps her students overcome the anxieties they associate with certain textures and consistencies, while experiencing the joy of creating and expressing through art.
“Sensory art gives students the opportunity to explore their environment with their senses,” explained Ms. Lacy. “This class also provides a social environment, so students can make connections with their peers. Students also get to participate in messy play -- which can be calming for some and challenging for other students -- within a safe environment. Exploring through a sensory experience is a great way to learn.”
A variety of smells, textures, colors and sounds work in harmony to stimulate the students’ senses. Fine motor skills, visual motor skills and body awareness are just a few of the developmental areas addressed during a sensory art class.
Sensory therapies help support language development, cognitive growth, motor skills, problem solving skills and social interaction.
“Sensory art focuses on the brain's capacity to adapt and develop pathways to learning through stimulation of the senses,” said Ms. Dabat. “Art expression is a form of non-verbal communication. For children who may not be able to articulate thoughts, sensations, emotions or perceptions, it is one way to convey what may be difficult to express with words. Many of our students here at Pathfinder have sensory issues, which means their brains have trouble organizing and responding to information from the senses. Certain sounds, sights, smells, textures and tastes can create a feeling of ‘sensory overload.’”
In just one class, a student like Megan goes from the apprehension of touching the paint or feeling the bubble wrap, to saying, “Look what I did!” while showing off her artwork with a big smile.
“I love to see the student’s joy when they learn a new task and continue to thrive on a daily basis,” said Ms. Lacy.
Sunrise-Gateway basketball game brings schools closer together
Sunrise School and Gateway High School have been Monroeville neighbors for years. On April 8, they came together and shared a basketball court.
The Sunrise Eagles and Gateway Gators competed in a back-and-forth game that ended with the home team Eagles on top of the high-scoring affair, 75-55.
All of the Sunrise players got a chance to play and make a basket in what was a memorable and one-of-a-kind event for the schools.
The high-flying Gators threw down a couple of thunderous slam dunks that electrified the crowd. Gateway certainly put on a great show and had everybody cheering.
The cheerleaders for each squad were on hand and dazzled with their respective halftime show routines between the second and third quarters.
After the game, the Gateway players handed out gift bags to the Sunrise players. Don't be surprised if you see them in the stands at Gateway next season cheering on the Gators!
The idea for the game was thought up the week before it happened. Gateway school board member Valerie Warning serves as the liaison between Sunrise and Gateway and was able to spearhead the endeavor and assist in bringing the event together. Sunrise principal Lucy McDonough said her students had fun playing and cheering on during the game. It was a school-wide event that everyone got behind. It also could be the beginning of a yearly contest between the two schools.
"I just thought it was a great event," Ms. Warning said. "All the kids loved it and it was very meaningful."
Where are they now? Former Sunrise student makes the honor roll
When he was a student at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s Sunrise School, Omar Barnard’s teachers had a strong feeling that the once-shy student would make a statement through his education.
They turned out to be right. Omar is back in his home district of East Allegheny this school year and is thriving at the Forbes Road Career and Technology Center, where he recently was named to the National Technical Honor Society. Omar, who is 17 years old and in 11th grade, and his peers were celebrated at a March 5th banquet at the Monroeville-based center.
“I had Omar for several years in several different vocational classes and it was nice to see him grow his skills and be eager to learn something new,” said Sunrise teacher Andrew Sneed. “He was someone you could always count on to be hard working, dependable, self-motivated and always strived to do the best he could.”
Omar has a hearing impairment and has two cochlear implants. He was referred to Sunrise due to complex needs that required a program rich in related services and classroom interventions. The teachers and staff ensured that Omar was given the opportunities he needed to be successful.
It can be challenging at times at Forbes Road, like when an instructor is giving a lesson. Omar will jot down notes or get them later on if he cannot hear during the lesson. But performing the job is less of a challenge because hearing protection is usually required on the job, so it lessens the effect of his impairment.
At Forbes Road, Omar is enrolled in the warehouse management program. His favorite part of his school day? That would be operating the forklift. He said he enjoys the program and would like to continue in the field for his career.
Once he took to the program, the accolade came rather naturally.
“I have just been doing my thing and I ended up on the honor roll,” said Omar. “It makes me feel good. It makes me want to keep working at it.”
Omar is dual-enrolled at Forbes Road and East Allegheny and excelling at both schools. That makes for some proud parents.
“I am extremely proud of him because he made honor roll at East Allegheny, too,” said Omar’s father, Charles Barnard. “He got straight As.”
Said his mother, Daniele Barnard: “He’s an awesome kid. I couldn’t ask for anybody better.”
Sunrise teacher Michele Riley taught Omar from third through eighth grade. Omar was a shy child who liked to play with toy cars. Eventually they made a goal of speaking to someone during a field trip. It didn’t happen the first few tries, but one year Omar asked about an item in a gift shop and Mrs. Riley heard his voice gain traction and his confidence grow as he continued speaking.
“Omar has continued to grow, attending Forbes and becoming an overall phenomenal young man,” said Mrs. Riley. “I am proud to have contributed to the success of Omar and expect many tremendous things for his future.”
Omar is no longer shy, but he still has a love of all vehicles. In addition to the forklift, Omar has earned his learner’s permit to drive a car and is also looking at dirt bikes. His need for speed continues at East Allegheny, where he joined the track and field team and competes in the 1,600-meter run.
Omar is definitely on the right track!
Ice hockey dreams come true for BVISP student
Emma Papariella is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey team. She watches the games with her dad and even took up ice hockey herself.
Imagine her excitement, recently, when she got the chance to suit up and play at PPG Paints Arena during a Penguins game. Just like that, she went from watching games in her house to playing on the home ice of household names like Sid the Kid and Geno.
“It absolutely was a dream come true,” said Emma. “I never thought I'd sit on the bench where the Penguins sit and share the same ice. It's incredible.”
What makes her story all the more remarkable is that Emma has a significant visual impairment. Emma is a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins Blind Ice Hockey team through Envision Blind Sports.
During the second intermission of the Feb. 21 Penguins game against San Jose, Emma’s gold team won the abbreviated game, 1-0.
“It was the fastest three minutes of my life,” said Emma. “My heart was racing and the fans were right there. It all happened so quickly. I’m just going to remember being out there with my team in front of 20,000 people.”
Emma was born in China with congenital cataracts on each eye. They were not removed until she was three-and-a-half years old. As a result, her optic nerve was underdeveloped. She has no depth perception, is sensitive to light and her pupils remain dilated at all times. Emma was adopted as a small child and moved to America.
She now attends high school in the Woodland Hills School District. AIU BVISP teacher, Alissa Falcone, has worked with Emma for the past two years. Working together daily, the pair have developed a strong rapport. Ms. Falcone has even made the trips to watch Emma play hockey.
“She’s always pushing me to do better,” said Emma. “Some days I don't want to do it, but she always pushes me to do better. She’s really good at providing encouragement.”
With her infectious energy and ear-to-ear smile, Emma seems nothing short of unstoppable. She plays ice hockey and has run a tough mudder all the while earning A’s and B’s in her honors courses. She also babysits, acts in plays, and mentors and advocates any way she can not only for the blind, but all people with disabilities.
Taking up ice hockey was difficult, for sure, but Emma likes a tough task and certainly won’t shy away from it. The very first challenge? That was getting on the ice.
“I didn't really know how to skate,” Emma said with a laugh. “Once you get the skating down, you pick it up fast.”
Blind hockey is adapted for its participants. The puck is larger and filled with ball bearings so that players can track it audibly as it careens over the ice. The team works together to determine the best positions for each player with consideration of the type and degree of visual impairment. Emma plays defense.
“I love the idea of hockey and sports in general being able to be adapted for visually impaired people,” said Emma. “Just because you have a disability doesn't mean it should hold you back.”
BVISP student inspired to share her knowledge
Tiraji is a second grader with a thirst for knowledge. So, when faced with the changes associated with an eye condition, Tiraji’s first instinct was to soak up as much information as she could and become an authority on the subject. Recently, she shared her wealth of knowledge with her classmates at Dr. Cleveland Steward Jr. Elementary in the Gateway School District.
Tiraji has a progressive condition called persistent hyperplastic primary vitreous and glaucoma in her right eye. It could worsen in the future, potentially rendering her blind. With the help of AIU vision teacher Jackie Bearley, Tiraji was able to research her condition and create a multi-faceted presentation for her classmates.
"I am super proud of her," Mrs. Bearley said. "She is such a great student and I love working with her."
Mrs. Bearley educates Tiraji about her visual impairment and is helping her learn braille. Tiraji wanted to show her classmates what she had learned, so the two constructed an introductory presentation and four hands-on stations. The stations included:
- A braille lesson to understand the basic concepts of braille code and how it works.
- A crack-the-code game in which students took what they learned about braille and then had to decipher inspirational phrases that Tiraji had laid out in braille.
- A display of braille signs and supplies for examples of how it is used in public settings.
- An array of white canes so that students could get a feel of using a cane as a sensory supplement.
It took courage for Tiraji to stand in front of her classmates and discuss such a personal topic. She was even a little nervous at first. That all went by the wayside when she began interacting with her friends. Thanks to that wealth of knowledge she had banked, talking about her condition became second nature.
By the end of the day, Tiraji’s classmates had learned so much more about her.
"Now her peers have a better understanding of why I take her out of the room three times a week and work with her," said Mrs. Bearley.
Photo Gallery: Pathfinder visits the Children's Museum
Students from The Pathfinder School took a trip to the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh Feb. 12 for an immersive learning experience. The day included painting, building, water/ice play, puzzles, Rube Goldberg machines and more.
The best part? There's more to come!
The trip was part of a new partnership program between The Pathfinder School and the Children’s Museum. It is funded in part by the VSA Museum Access for Kids program at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
More visits to the Children's Museum are in the works so that students can dig deeper into art, history and culture.
Speech-Language program is making headlines
The AIU speech-language team is on the cutting edge when it comes to educating students with severe speech impairments. The accomplishments of the program are big news, thanks to a recent nation-wide article featured on the website eSchool News.
The speech-language division has offered a unique, immersive learning experience via the Primary Expressions classroom for nearly two decades. During that time, many lessons have been taught -- and learned. The article delves into six reasons why an immersive learning experience benefits students with severe speech needs. We are proud to be ahead of the curve when it comes to speech-language education and hope we can provide valuable knowledge for intermediate units, school districts, parents and other organizations across the country.
Pathfinder students ace spelling bee
What do the words volcano, garbage and ranch have in common? They were just some of the many words presented to Pathfinder School students at the Thursday's school spelling bee!
Each student took a turn as their teachers read aloud new words for each competitor. After numerous rounds, it was Mikey who triumphed and celebrated by throwing his arms up and giving a big smile. Way to go!
The spelling bee offers plenty of challenges and new feelings. There's the aspect of competition, executing practiced tasks, building vocabulary and speaking in front of a crowd. The school auditorium was filled with fellow students and parents cheering on each speller. It took courage to get up there and do their best, which everyone did.
Congratulations to all who participated!
Mon Valley awarded $35,000 grant to expand computer science program
An immeasurable amount of time and effort has been put into the Mon Valley School's STEAM program, and it's paying off in a big way.
Mon Valley was selected from a large pool of candidates by the Pennsylvania Department of Education for a PAsmart Targeted K12 Computer Science and STEM Education grant. The grant is for $35,000 and will kick-start a multi-phased plan to inject more computer science throughout the school's curriculum. It's all part of an effort to provide students with disabilites the same educational opportunities as their peers.
AIU Fine-Motor Program Gets Students, Schools on the Right Track
Occupational Therapist Brian Convery walked into the kindergarten classroom at Burchfield Primary School, said hello to the class and sat cross-legged on the ground. A chorus of giggles and excited tones rose up and then hushed as Mr. Convery began a litany of exercises like a game of 'Monkey See, Monkey Do'; an imitation thunderstorm; and flat-footed leaps into the air.
The students, naturally, loved it. Even though they had done the exercises enough to plead for the next one as they finished up the previous exercise. They still ate it up.
What they didn’t know is that Mr. Convery was closely examining the skills and progression of each and every student, as well as monitoring their self regulation through fast (dis-regulating) and slow (re-regulating) activities.
Burchfield Primary is part of the Shaler Area School District and one of several districts that take a proactive approach to OT/PT needs through the AIU Fine-Motor Program by engaging young students early in order to decrease the need for related services as they progress through their education.
“During the imitative movement game, I am observing the students' abilities to do a variety of hand skills related to classroom tool use, like finger isolation and separation of the sides of the hand,” Mr. Convery noted. “I am also looking for any struggles with crossing the mid-line of their bodies.”
After the exercises, Mr. Convery leads table time activities that help him gauge a student's ability to hold and control classroom items like pencils, crayons, markers and scissors. Then, they put it all together by dragging their pencil through a maze.
“The maze activity allows me to gauge the students' status with pencil control, visual motor planning and self-regulation as well,” said Mr. Convery.
Not every child begins school with the same skill set. Some have been enrolled in a Pre-K program for years and hit the ground running. Others may be picking up a pencil for the first time in their lives.
“Districts are noting increasing numbers of kindergarteners entering school having limited exposure to fine-motor activities such as pre-writing and scissor skills, probably due to the general increase in the use of technology for play and learning,” said AIU OT-PT supervisor Mary Grassi. “The AIU Fine-Motor Group Program was developed for kindergarten and primary grade-level students to practice and improve age appropriate classroom skills. The therapist works in the classroom with the teacher on an activity such as printing or cutting with scissors. The benefits of this group are twofold: the teacher learns strategies to benefit all students and the therapist can identify and work with students needing additional support.”
The focus of the program is not to kickstart a prolonged period of therapy. The idea is to get the kids up to speed quickly so they are ready to transition to first grade. If a student is lagging behind in certain aspects, Mr. Convery will provide those students with additional support to help them catch up.
The program allows schools to catch issues before they can mushroom, thus saving students from lagging behind, and saving districts money down the road.
“School districts implementing this program benefit by seeing a decreased need for referral to OT because therapists are able to intervene early and skills can be carried over throughout their school day,” Mrs. Grassi said. “Teachers benefit by learning strategies they can use to improve their students’ fine-motor skills for classroom activities.”
It’s a win-win for the families and districts, as well as Mr. Convery. He takes his job seriously, but at the same time he can’t help but enjoy all those smiling faces sitting in front of him.
“I am definitely having as much fun as they are,” said Mr. Convery.
Mon Valley Students Get Real-World Work Experience
When students at Mon Valley are ready to pack up and ship off into the workforce, they will have plenty of experience thanks to packing up and shipping off Storytime STEM-Packs. A partnership between Mon Valley School and the AIU Math & Science Collaborative has paid dividends for each, as order production has ramped up and the students are getting hands-on experience that will help them down the road. Read on to see how this endeavor is impacting our students.
Sports Recap: Mon Valley and Pathfinder tip-off basketball season
The fall sports season officialy tipped-off Monday morning, as the Mon Valley Mustangs hosted the Pathfinder Panthers in a season-opening basketball matchup.
The Mustangs raced to an early, thanks to a 12-0 run, but the Panthers soon found their footing and clawed their way back into the game. It was back-and-forth action down the stretch, as the teams traded baskets until the end.
Mon Valley was able to hold on to its lead until the end, picking up a 34-20 victory.
What a great, hard-fought matchup by both squads!
Photo Gallery: Happy Halloween!
Check out this gallery of students from Sunrise, Pathfinder and Mon Valley schools getting in the Halloween spirit with parades, dances and parties!
Renovated Sensory Room Lights Up Mon Valley Students
Students, like the rest of us, need to take a moment every now and then to hit the reset button, calm down and then get back to whatever the task at hand may be.
Thanks to a collaborative effort between the AIU OT/PT division and Mon Valley School, students at the special education center have a re-designed space for just that. It certainly is not your average break room, although chances are you’ll wish you had one.
The sensory room at Mon Valley is equipped with numerous items to satiate the sensory needs of its students in an otherworldly environment. New this year is:
- A light projector that swirls calming green dots of light around the facility.
- A mermaid fabric bulletin board with “scales” that produce an iridescent glow when rubbed down and another shade when rubbed up.
- A vertical lamp filled with plastic fish and bubbling water.
- A stand-up bopping bag.
- Fiber optic light strands.
- A large bean bag that hugs the body and heightens proprioceptive awareness.
“It’s really been a positive,” said Jessica Carlson, an occupational therapist at the school. “It’s really made a big difference. The kids really like it.”
Ms. Carlson, along with COTA Kathy Elms and PT Denise Winkler, had a big hand in the revamping of the space. They even put in the hard work of laying a new padded floor and assembling the new materials.
Students come in and out of the room as needed throughout the day. A recommended 10-minute session soothes the students and scratches their sensory itch, allowing them to continue their learning in the classroom.
“The sensory room at Mon Valley benefits so many of our students in so many different ways,” said Mon Valley acting principal Stephanie Paolucci. “It's an area that they can utilize to relax, re-focus or re-center themselves. Our occupational and physical therapy staff work diligently to make sure that each student is provided with a customized sensory experience, and it is such an integral part of our program here at Mon Valley.”
Each year, teachers fill out the Sensory Profile School Companion form for each student and the therapists create what is known as a “sensory diet” for them. The sensory room is another tool that educators can use to help their students throughout the day.
“If they are in the classroom and having trouble sitting still and you’ve tried a weighted pad, you've tried taking a walk, and they still are overstimulated, then that would be a good time to come,” said Ms. Carlson.
The revamped sensory room incorporates items that were there previously, such as calming music filling the air, a rocking chair, weighted blankets and a swinging hammock for vestibular input.
The new materials were paid for by a donation from the local Texas Roadhouse Restaurant.
“We are thrilled that we were able to make upgrades due to the generous contribution from our local are Texas Roadhouse, and we are looking forward to continuing to provide our students with the best possible sensory experiences,” said Mrs. Paolucci.
The room has come together nicely and is a big hit with the kids. A student named Daniel summed it up best when he walked into the room and declared, “I love this place!”
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