• spotlight

  • 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

    Natalie and her award

    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.”

  • Presenter Eileen Cirelli points to an audience member at a recent conference.

    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:


    Sunrise School

    Austin Alward

    Lauren Hails

    Megan Kinter

    Shamar Scott

    Quien Smalls

    Timothy Thompson


    The Pathfinder School

    Ronald Arevalo

    Anna Ferguson

    Ashleigh Geier

    Jonathan Li

    Michael Pastor

    Andrew Young


    Mon Valley School

    Donald Asbury

    Tariq Baskin

    Ryan Bildhauer

    Dashawn Braxton

    Shiane Dixon

    Jenna Fryberger

    Cara Gregg

    Corine Lindahl

    Harlie Marcucci

    Aaron Matesic

    Stephon Pete

    Cody Roland

    Kareem Sarvis

    Timothy Schreck


  • A finished copy of Outlook Magazine.

    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.

  • Mon Valley students pack and prep orders

    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

    Omar Barnard, right, is an honors student.

    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

    BVISP student Emma playing hockey.

    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 and Jackie pose after her presentation.

    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 

    A Primary Expressions class activity.

    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.

    Read the story on eSchool News' website!

  • Pathfinder students ace spelling bee

    A student celebrates after winning the 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

    A teacher at Mon Valley helps a young student code.

    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. 

    Check out our latest Headline & Highlights story to learn more! 



  • 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.

  • Sunrise School celebrates the holidays

    Posted by Eddie Phillipps on 12/21/2018

    Students enjoy a breakfast visit from Mrs. Claus.

    Christmas came early at Sunrise School when students were treated to a memorable day packed with holiday activities Dec. 21.

    It was quite an eye-opener when the day began with breakfast. None other than Mr. and Mrs. Claus strolled through the cafeteria and mingled with all the star-struck kids.

    Next up was a concert performance by the Gateway Middle School chorus and orchestra. The sweet sound of carols filled the gymnasium as the students, dressed up in holiday attire, sang along.

    The school library was transformed into the toy store of their dreams, thanks to incredibly generous toy donations from the Presents from Police program. Acting Chief of Aspinwall Police Department Dave Nemec and Deputy Chief of Millvalle Police Deprtment Michael Vith were on hand, as well as patrolwoman Jennifer Harper.

    Gifts for boys and girls of all ages wrapped around the entire library, with just enough space to have a photo session with Mr. and Mrs. Claus.

    A student poses for a holiday picture.

    The last activity was a horse-drawn carriage ride around the school. The kids got to admire the beautiful horses and then sat tight in a cozy carriage.

    Thank you to everyone who made this day such an incredible success and a memory that will last a lifetime! Happy Holidays from everyone in the AIU Special Education Division!

    A horse-drawn carriage rides students along.

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  • Biondi Lincoln Helps Rev Up Sunrise School Playground

    Posted by Eddie Phillipps on 12/6/2018

    A Biondi team member join in to carol with Sunrise students.

    The season of giving hit high gear when Sunrise School took part in its annual holiday celebration at Biondi Lincoln in Monroeville.

    Principal Lucy McDonough announced during the Dec. 4 festivities that Biondi had secured a grant through Enterpise Rent-A-Car that will provide $2,000 towards brand new playground equipment at the school! The playground is, naturally, a favorite place of the students. The school also uses it for special events, such as this summer’s water play day.

    The fun and excitement didn't stop there. After a round of caroling classic holiday songs from the showroom floor, the moment everyone had been waiting for arrived when none other than Mr. and Mrs. Claus strolled in and handed out gifts to the excited students. Some of them even took the opportunity to hop on Santa's lap for a big hug.

    In addition to the grant, Biondi also supplied a pizza party lunch and gifts for all the students. We would like to thank them very much for their generosity and holiday spirit!

    Students react as Mr. and Mrs. Claus arrive.

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By Month

  • Mon Valley Students Get Real-World Work Experience

    Mon Valley students wrap up a package.

    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

    Hoops season tipped off at Mon Valley.

    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!


  • Drive to Succeed Defines BVISP Student

    Posted by Eddie Phillipps on 11/9/2018

    Zainab and Ms. Secrist go over class notes.

    West Mifflin student Zainab Alhelali will graduate a year early while taking college courses at Point Park University. In her college entrance essay, Zainab detailed her experience moving from Iraq to the United States at the age of 10, and how challenging the transition was.

    What she did not mention was one of her defining characteristics: Zainab is legally blind.

    It was by design. Zainab is confident and unflinching in the face of adversity. She would rather work twice as hard just to keep up than use her visual impairment as an excuse not to succeed.

    "I don't want to be that person who says, 'I can't do this because of my vision,'" Zainab said. "Because they’ll say it's OK. I want to be the one to do it."

    Zainab was born with a condition known as Achromatopsia. It is a non-progressive, hereditary visual impairment that results in color blindness, light sensitivity and a loss of vision. For example, in order to read a document on a computer screen, Zainab must decrease the brightness until the screen is a grayish-black. She also needs to enlarge the font to about 18.

    Growing up in Iraq, it was difficult to get the support she needed.

    "It was hard," said Zainab, who along with her family speaks Arabic at home.

    She greatly benefitted from the support provided by the West Mifflin School District, along with the AIU Blind and Visually Impaired Support Program. It was at this time that she was exposed to advanced technology. In the eighth grade she began working with her current AIU Vision Teacher, Sharon Secrist. Zainab said she learned more about her visual impairment and how to build her life around the Achromatopsia without letting it impede her progress.

    For her part, Sharon has worked with Zainab on vision goals and orientation and mobility, which is traveling indoors, out in the community and at Point Park University.

    Waiting to cross the road.

    Zainab prefers not to use a cane, but, due to the brightness, she does wear a pair of stylish mirrored sunglasses when she's out and about.

    Ms. Secrist’s role is to work with Zainab on the best way to access her academic curriculum. Technology helps. Sometimes, Zainab uses an app to read notes and assignments to her. Her phone allows her to zoom in on the blackboard or lesson notes by taking pictures.

    "Before I was embarrassed when other students were around and I had to take a picture," Zainab said. "Now, I don't care. The other kids say it's so cool and now they do it, too, because they don't want to have a lot of papers."

    Ms. Secrist also pushed Zainab towards independence. 

    "She would come to me and say, ‘Ms. Secrist, I can’t see the board, I can’t see this, I can’t see that,’” recalls Ms. Secrist. “I told her, one day, shes going to need to talk to her teachers or talk to her boss. Now, she emails her teachers and she asks them questions. She has come a long way."

    Taking the time to talk with Zainab and understand where she came from allowed Ms. Secrist and Zainab to move forward together. It's easy to see the bond they share simply by speaking to them. An easy smile perks up on Ms. Secrist's face when she talks about Zainab or shows off pictures of her. Zainab lights up and talks about the many ways that Ms. Secrist has guided her on her journey.

    "I had to understand who she was in order to teach her," Ms. Secrist said.

    The two share a laugh.

    Zainab and two of her older brothers have achromatopsia. Another older brother does not. Their parents each carry the gene that causes achromatopsia, however both parents have perfect 20/20 vision.

    Education is important in Zainab’s household. Her father is a surgeon and her mother is a mathematician. Her father was a general in the Iraqi military and the family moved several times before making the trek to America.

    Zainab is on the fast track to return to Iraq for medical school. She is a citizen of both the United States and Iraq. The latter allows her to study at Baghdad University for free where she will study psychiatry. After six years of school there, she plans to return to America for her residency and to practice.

    Zainab is taking college courses, graduating high school early, is a strong advocate for herself and is on the fast-track to success. Those traits, not her visual imparment, have become her defining characteristics.

    “You have no idea how proud I am of her,” said Ms. Secrist. “I've never had somebody so driven.”

    Zainab, in her stylish sunglasses.

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By Month

  • 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! 

  • Apple Crunch Festival Gives Students a Taste of Everything

    Posted by Eddie Phillipps on 10/30/2018

    A student, left, and teacher mix a bowl of apples that will become applesauce.

    Most of us have the opportunity to eat three meals each day. Even the busiest among us needs to grab a bite to eat. But how often do we reflect on what we are eating and where it came from?

    Students at Sunrise School got a taste of all the different aspects of apples at the school's annual Apple Crunch Festival on Oct. 24. 

    In the morning, the kids peeled, sliced and seasoned locally-grown apples before roasting them into a sauce for an afternoon snack. The mouth-watering scent of fresh apples tossed in cinnamon roamed the hallways as the apples slowly baked into a delicious sauce. 

    In between, they learned all about the farming and harvesting of the fruit, as well as its nutritional value in a healthy lifestyle. Apples were the star of other lesson plans as well, like adding up bushels for math class, or discussing the growth process of a seed as a science lesson.

    It was a great way to welcome fall and a clever adaptation of lessons that engaged the students throughout the day. In the end, they truly got to enjoy the fruits of their labor with a healthy snack of homemade applesauce! 


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By Month

  • 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!”

  • AIU Staff Walk for Apraxia

    Posted by Eddie Phillipps on 10/11/2018 9:00:00 AM

    Check out this new post about our staff's participation in the recent Walk for Apraxia.

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  • Fab Lab Visit Sparks Creativity

    Posted by Eddie Phillipps on 10/9/2018

    The mobile Fab Lab outside Sunrise School.

    Students at Sunrise, Mon Valley and Pathfinder schools were immersed in hands-on learning throughout the past month, as the Mobile Fab Lab made its rounds to each school. The Fab Lab spent an entire week at each location where students were introduced to STEAM learning through machinery and software before creating their own unique projects.

    A student observes the laser cutter.

    The Fab Lab team introduced students to equipment such as a laser cutter, heat press, vinyl cutter and more. 

    A student designs a project.

    Next, the students learned how to design their project on a computer before producing it on the machinery. 

    A student peels back the decal on his towel.

    Most of the students elected to create laser-cut rulers with their names on it, or towels emblazoned with their name and school logo. The towels will be perfect to twirl at basketball games this winter to show a little school spirit! 

    A student shows off his finished project.

    By the end of each week, students had designed and created their very own projects! 

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  • Former Hoops Star still "Cleaning the Glass" at Sunrise School

    Posted by Eddie Phillipps on 9/28/2018 9:00:00 AM

    Eddie Klingensmith is somebody that students at Sunrise School can look up to, for more reasons than one.  Check out the story about this former student and current AIU employee by clicking on this link.

    Then and Now

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  • Spotlight on Special Ed

    Posted by Eddie Phillipps on 9/7/2018 1:05:00 AM

    Start the year right with these back-to-school tips

    Rested? Check.
    Relaxed? Check.
    Rockin’ tan? Check.

    Now that your summer checklist is complete, it’s time to start a whole new one. The first day of school is rapidly approaching. Whether you’re saying “How exciting!” or “How can that be?!” it’s a good idea to go over a few things and make sure you are prepared for the best start.

    We spoke with numerous educators and they gave us some wonderful tips for preparing yourself for the beginning of the school year.

    • Come in early. Don't wait until the last minute. Take the time to set up the room before the fun begins.
    • Contact parents. Reach out and tell them how excited you are to work with their children this year.
    • Color code your inventory. We’re all guilty of saying, “What, where did I put that again?” A system of organization will help you track down materials faster, so that you can get back to what you do best.
    • Schedule your deadlines. Be prepared, rather than surprised, when a deadline begins to approach.
    • Develop a month of lesson plans. Whether it's paperwork or an unexpected turn of events, there can be hurdles at the beginning of any school year. Having your lesson plan taken care of is one less thing to worry about.
    • Work yourself into your own schedule. Because you focus so much on  your students, this can be the hardest part! Be sure to carve out time to cook a healthy meal or go to the gym. Your body will thank you in the long run.

    But what if you don't work in the typical classroom setting like folks in OT/PT, BVISP, Deaf/Hard of Hearing or Speech Language? No worries, we’ve got you covered as well.

    • Make your car your zen place. For the road warriors out there, this is key. Keep anything you need in trunk and load up your phone with your favorite traveling playlists. You never know when traffic will snarl.
    • Become familiar with your surroundings. Learn the layout of buildings you are assigned to. And remember: School secretaries and other staff are your friends. Get familiar with them.
    • Wear comfortable clothing. Those six-inch heels in the closet might look great for a wedding, but probably don't work well if you are on your feet and interacting with students all day.


    Good luck to all of the educators out there and have a great school year!


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