• spotlight

  • April Spotlight: Aquatics Instruction and Therapy Supports at Pathfinder School

    Posted by Junior Gonzalez on 4/12/2024 4:00:00 PM

    Many things make Pathfinder School stand out among schools for special education learners -- its location, thriving greenhouse, and dedicated AIU teachers and staff for starters. One other feature is its 55,000-gallon swimming pool offering unique aquatic experiences and innovative physical therapy supports for students.Students play water polo with Sandy Sherman (center) in the Pathfinder School Pool. Pathfinder School Principal Nicholas Fratto says the pool serves as a major part of educational programming at the school. "The health benefits of swimming are well-documented," he said, noting that for students with physical challenges, swimming provides a low-impact form of exercise and helps reinforce many physical therapy goals such as building muscle strength, flexibility, and coordination.

    Pathfinder believes no student should feel discouraged or excluded from joining the fun inside the pool. To maximize accessibility, the pool features an adaptive lift to assist students entering and exiting the pool who have difficulty or cannot use the pool later. In addition, water walkers, adaptive chairs, and flotation devices such as life jackets and aqua joggers are used for every student to get in on the action.Water polo between Patfinder and Sunrise Schools.

    Pathfinder Adapted Physical Education Teacher Chris Garofalo trains students to Red Cross Learn-to-Swim program standards, which focus on building skills one step at a time and at their own pace. Garofalo has taught at Pathfinder for 11 years. The students are regularly assessed on each of the skills and parents are provided with reports, so they can see what skills their child has mastered. Garofalo and other educators who work in pool instruction are certified lifeguards.

    Both Garofalo and support teacher Sandy Sherman have several certifications for swimming instruction and pool operation, as well as lifeguarding.

    In recent years, even students at our other AIU-operated special education schools have been invited to enjoy the benefits of the Pathfinder pool. To learn more about Pathfinder School, visit the school's webpage.

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  • Photo Gallery: Mess Fest brings science and creativity together at Mon Valley

    Posted by AIU on 4/12/2024 9:00:00 AM

    Dozens of Mon Valley students brought their family and friends to the second annual Mess Fest, and it was a huge success!

    Mon Valley's hallways were packed with folks bidding on raffles, trying colorful and bubbly experiments, and seeing student artwork all around the hallways! It was a huge success. Thanks to Ms. Tarah for her hard work putting this together and to our dedicated Mon Valley staff who stayed in the evening to welcome our families!

    See some of the action in the photo gallery below!

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  • Photo Gallery: Duquesne Band Performs at Pathfinder School!

    Posted by AIU on 4/11/2024 12:00:00 PM

    Recently, students at Pathfinder were treated to a mix of the classics as well as familiar themes to popular movies and TV shows in a special musical performance in the multi-purpose room!

    Members of the Duquesne Brass Quintet also spoke to students about the differences between their instruments. It was an all-around great time!

    See photos of the performance in the gallery below!

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  • Photo Gallery: Sensory Glow Run Shines at Pathfinder!

    Posted by AIU on 4/9/2024 4:25:00 PM

    Students were transfixed when entering the Pathfinder gym last week. They found a huge, inflatable arch marking the beginning and end of the first-ever Pathfinder Sensory Glow Run! The event included glow-in-the-dark eyewear and necklaces, so students could see one another in the dark (and for fashion purposes, of course)! 

    The run benefited a future sensory playground inside the school! Thanks to everyone for their participation and to the Pittsburgh marathon for their support! See photos from the Sensory Glow Run in the gallery below:

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  • March Madness at Sunrise Vs. Point Park Women's Basketball!

    Posted by AIU on 4/1/2024 8:25:00 AM

    Thanks to the Point Park University Women's Basketball Team for coming and playing against our Eagles in a hard-fought match!

    To see more photos from the Sunrise tournament match, view the gallery below!

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  • March Spotlight: The impact of the AIU Preschool Early Intervention Program

    Posted by AIU on 3/15/2024 10:30:00 AM

    The Preschool Early Intervention (PEI) program is omnipresent. It’s just about everywhere and making a huge impact on education in Allegheny County.

    A teacher showing an image of a backpack to a preschool student.

    “I feel [people] are aware of who we are and what our job may look like and sound like,” says Amy Abraham, a special education supervisor with PEI. “But I am not sure if they understand the magnitude of how many children and families we serve all over Allegheny County.”

    It is staggering – with more than 3,300 children served yearly, PEI is among the largest programs at the AIU. Its outcomes bring an even bigger impact, providing critical, time-sensitive, and long-term gains that could change a life.

    PEI serves children aged 3-5 who have been identified as having demonstrated developmental delays or disabilities. Based on a student's needs, services are provided in a classroom setting or through itinerant professionals at home, totaling more than 600 locations. Each student referred to the program is tended to uniquely – a collaboration between educators and families and prioritized by PEI.

    It is the ultimate collaborative effort to make PEI tick – referrals come from a variety of sources to the program’s preschool service coordinators (PSCs), including directly from families, pediatricians/medical providers, and childcare providers. In addition, referrals come from other AIU programs such as AIU Head Start/Pre-K Counts and AIU-operated Family Centers, as well as other state and local programs, such as school district-run Pre-K Counts programs, the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center Head Start/Pre-K Counts programs, and the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth, and Families.

    A teacher working with students in a preschool classroom.

    “A family is a culture unto itself, with hopes and dreams for their child,” says Abraham. “We become part of this family when we work with their child, providing services to help their child succeed and providing our partners and families with strategies for a child to be successful in any environment.”

    It’s a sentiment echoed by Bethany Beale, an itinerant Speech Language Pathologist with PEI.

    “Families respond positively to having an active role in the speech therapy process,” Beale says. “In return, their involvement increases the progress I see my students make!”

    The benefit is mutual, as PEI staff find immense reward in their work. Many of Beale’s students show up to her, bright-eyed, just after their third birthday. “It is fun to learn and grow with them and support their speech and language development in the process,” Beale said.

    Staff posing for a photo. The top photo is staff serving the North-East Region, and the bottom image is a group photo of SW.

    Abraham loves the culture of PEI, staffed by more than 130 professionals and paraprofessionals, and after nearly two decades in education, feels a sense of affinity for her colleagues and career.

    “I have made lifelong friends in this position, and I work with some amazing people,” she said. “I learn something new every day, and I feel I am where I belong.” No matter who you speak with in Preschool Early Intervention, the sentiment is the same, this massive program is a family.

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  • Photo Gallery: 2024 Mon Valley Fashion Show!

    Posted by AIU on 3/12/2024 1:25:00 PM

    If this was ever in doubt, there's no need to wonder -- Mon Valley's got talent! Dozens of performances over two hours kept staff, students, and families entertained! Students danced, sang, and played instruments (including the piano!) for an unforgettable talent show!

    Catch glimpses of the many performances in the gallery below!

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  • Photo Gallery: 2024 Pathfinder Fashion Show!

    Posted by AIU on 3/12/2024 10:15:00 AM

    Firefighter? Check! Trooper? Check! Prom Queen? Check!

    Students dressed the part in the career-themed 2024 Pathfinder Fashion Show! It is a fun way to dress up (or down!) in addition to teaching students about different careers and the apparel associated with certain fields.

    See all the amazing looks in the following gallery!

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  • Photo Gallery: Basketball at Pathfinder vs. Sunrise!

    Posted by AIU on 3/11/2024 11:00:00 AM

    Recently, friends and family of students sat through a nail-biter match at Pathfinder as the Panthers tied the Sunrise Eagles 20-20 with less than a minute to spare! The tie was broken with a last-second shot by the Eagles, but the crowd roared for the close match! As is the AIU league tradition, the match was followed by friendly high-fives and a pizza party for both teams!

    See all the action in the gallery below!

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  • February Spotlight: Occupational and Physical Therapy (OT/PT) Supports

    Posted by AIU on 2/20/2024 7:05:00 AM

    This month, we are taking a “look” at the myriad sensory supports for schools and students from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s Occupational and Physical Therapy Support Program, colloquially known by its acronym, OT/PT (no need to pronounce the slash!)

    OT/PT provides an array of supports – visual, auditory, and tactile supports, as well as olfactory (smell), vestibular (balance), proprioceptive (self-movement and perception), and interoceptive (internal perception) assistance.

    “As occupational and physical therapists, we understand that how a student processes sensory input can directly impact their success in the school environment,” said Holly McElhinny, the AIU’s OT/PT program director. Across many Allegheny County school districts, our support staff assists in the development of safe and effective sensory rooms, as well as more ad-hoc approaches like constructing pathways in hallways and smaller sensory “stations” throughout the school. OT/PT also helps with education and training fellow teachers and staff at our partnering educational agencies. McElhinny adds, “We feel it is essential that the teachers and staff working with students understand how sensory input is processed” and it is seamlessly incorporated into everyday school routine.

    Sensory in Action

    Sensory in Action bags filled with items for sensory activities

    In September 2023, the AIU OT/PT program leveraged evidence-based practices and research to develop, create, and implement a new sensory program and newsletter designed to support Preschool Early Intervention (PEI) classroom routines. The “Sensory in Action” program was launched for teachers, staff, and students in both PEI classrooms and in itinerant settings. Therapists utilize a coaching model to provide ongoing support to classroom staff and families while incorporating ideas for sensory motor activities (essentially, how your body works with your mind to accomplish things) into already established classroom routines. Each newsletter has a sensory system focus and comes with a corresponding activity bag filled with fun materials to use during treatments or classroom routines.

    The collaborative effort has been well-received by therapists in our PEI classrooms. Tracy Weber is an Occupational Therapist Assistant assigned to the Riverview PEI classroom. She noted one student there who struggles with engagement in class activities. The student was “totally tuned in” to one of the sensory activities outlined in the newsletter!

    A student at North Allegheny playing with a sensory box.

    Photo: Alisya Yusman uses her sense of touch to explore items in a bin. She uses her hands together to scoop and pour the beans, and her fingertips to pick up one at a time.  All of this is happening while Alisya is using flexible seating at the table.

    To date, the program has rolled out newsletter editions focused on tactile, vision, and movement, and additional sensory domains will be featured soon!

    AIU OT/PT’s Collaborative Work with our LEA partners: West Jefferson Hills

    The West Jefferson Hills School District, in collaboration with Occupational Therapy Assistant Sheena Bonner and Occupational Therapist Lisa Karner, recently secured a $1,000 Foundation for Education grant that will help fund the creation of a sensory zone in the Jefferson Hills Intermediate School library. The project, designed with the specific needs of students in life skills classes in grades 3-5 in mind, aligns with the goals of the Jefferson Hills School District to create inclusive learning environments catering to the diverse learning styles and abilities of all students.

    South Fayette School District

    A heart sensory box for students at South Fayette Elementary.

    At South Fayette Elementary, AIU Occupational Therapist Christine Nypaver and Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant Kim Rayburg are working in collaboration with South Fayette’s Director of Support Services, Dr. Rachel Andler, Principal Tyler Geist, and Vice Principal Pharlan Ives to update the school’s sensory room and develop sensory opportunities throughout the campus. A rock wall and rubber flooring were recently installed in the sensory room. Planned additions to the space include a permanent water table, a sensory table, and an updated swing.

    “Sensory Stations” are also being developed throughout the school, which offer opportunities for students to take a break from the classroom and experience calming and organizing sensory input through bins filled with sensory materials, such as a heart sensory box (pictured). Sensory “Pathways” are also being created in hallways as another sensory experience students can utilize throughout their day.

    At AIU-Operated Special Education Schools

    In addition to their work in districts, the OT/PT program is hard at work implementing impactful settings in our AIU-operated special education school classrooms.

    At Pathfinder, staff saw a need to have additional designated space and equipment to meet the unique needs of their primary grade-level students. This space could also be shared with and used by PEI students in the school's dedicated preschool classroom location. Through a collaborative effort, OT/PT staff worked closely with Pathfinder School Principal Nick Fratto, along with PEI supervisor Loreleigh Elders and director Carrie Frohnapfel, to equip, design, and build the new space and train the staff for appropriate, safe use and care of the room. In addition, AIU staff received the help of Jaelyn Taylor, a design student at Chatham University (and the daughter of OT/PT supervisor Ginger Nese), who developed the renderings for the project. 

    In Monroeville, due to limited space availability, Sunrise School does not currently have a dedicated sensory room. A collaborative project is in the works to help meet this need. Instead of a single dedicated sensory room, OT/PT will be creating opportunities for sensory interaction throughout the school building. Areas will include a calming wall, an interactive sensory path leading to the cafeteria, and customized spaces outside some classrooms. Jaelyn Taylor will also be assisting with this project.


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