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Beyond Limitations

Throughout St. Vrain Valley Schools, our Special Education teachers provide students with the necessary tools and knowledge for success.
Special Education Teacher, Larissa Mangione works with a student and the assistive robot Misty at Erie Elementary.

All of our students have the opportunity to receive a high-quality education that aligns with their unique needs, and supports them to gain independence so they can reach their full potential. Throughout our schools, teachers and staff have implemented innovative teaching methods to best advance the success of every student.

At Spark! Discovery Preschool, students are encouraged and empowered to engage their sensory needs and participate in activities that facilitate better focus and learning.

One resource is Spark’s sensory room, which is designed with learning and fun in mind. “The goal of the room is for students to learn their sensory systems, and to experiment with different sensations to figure out what is soothing to them,” shared Ty Cito, Occupational Therapist at Spark!.

Sensory play helps students develop their senses – such as sight, hearing, and touch. It encourages problem-solving skills and builds nerve connections in the brain, providing students with tools to manage their feelings.

The room provides activities such as weighted balls, which allow students to feel deep pressure and can help them relax and regulate. The room also has bouncy balls to give students rhythmic actions, and a swing that has different options, such as spinning, which can help regulate their vestibular system. Other students might opt to engage with a water table or create art. 

Helping students learn to regulate and interact with the world around them in a safe environment can have positive effects on their ability to understand, react, and learn, while also building up their confidence. 

At Erie Elementary School, Larrissa Mangione’s philosophy and foundation is that, “The work never goes away, but the love is unconditional.” For the past 15 years, Mangione has continued to look for different ways to best support her students. 

Last year, Mangione received a grant from the St. Vrain Valley Schools Education Foundation for an electroencephalogram (EEG) band and a 360-degree camera that allows her to better understand the needs of her students and create virtual learning experiences. “For students who are nonverbal, I use EEG to see what is engaging them positively and what might be causing anxiety,” shared Mangione.  

In the past, Mangione has used this strategy to support students who had extreme anxiety about going into a general education environment or had behavioral issues. “I had one specific student that couldn’t go down a hallway with people surrounding him,” said Mangione. “I filmed a 360-degree video of this activity and then I uploaded the video into a virtual reality setting. We practiced virtually walking down the hallway until he showed that he was level regulated, and eventually he was able to do it in real life – it was powerful.”

Another support for students at Erie Elementary is the Cub Club. In order to assist with the transition from a special education to general education classroom, Mangione welcomes peer mentors from fourth and fifth grade for students in the Cub Club. “Being a mentor in the Cub Club was so beneficial to me, because I am able to experience who the kids are and how they learn,” said Elliana Henson, former Cub Club mentor. “It helped me realize that I too want to become a special education teacher.”

Peer mentoring allows students to develop a strong bond with each other. “It has taught me that I am not alone in how I feel,” shared August Hurst, former Cub Club mentor. “I learned how to understand others and their feelings.”

Many parents have seen a significant positive impact on their child’s education and progress. “To say I was delighted to learn of the development and implementation of a classroom environment designed specifically for children who need more individualized support is an understatement,” shared Tracy Postle, parent of an Erie Elementary student. “The learning opportunities and developmental support that the outstanding educators of the Cub Club provide have been paramount to my son’s continued progress and enthusiasm for learning.” 

In addition to mentoring, integrating technology into a special education setting also helps students’ executive functioning. Students can have direct experiences with step-by-step thinking and seeing results which can be motivating to them. 

During Genius Hour at Main Street School, students select the topic they want to learn and are passionate about, and then use technology and the design-thinking process to empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test a finished product. “That to me is huge, because when we send them into the world, we want them to be successful,” shared Penny Valentine, K-12 STEM Teacher at Main Street School.

Valentine also incorporates the Lego WeDo Program in her classroom at Main Street. Lego WeDo is an app that makes coding a reality for elementary students. In Valentine’s classes with these STEM activities the progress she sees with her students is significant. For example, one of her first graders who struggles with fine motor skills has been using a computer program that teaches him how to build and code his own Mars Rover model. “With the Lego WeDo app, he is able to follow directions to build his model, and once complete, he will be able to move on to coding and programming using coding blocks,’’ said Valentine.  

Building Skills for Life 

For many students, volunteering in their community not only makes them feel like they belong, but it allows them to practice the many skills they have learned in the classroom. This is what Blake Curton, Special Education Teacher at Life Skills ACE (LSACE), prioritizes for his students. 

Located at Main Street School, LSACE is a secondary transition program that provides services for students ages 18–21. The focus of the program is to provide students with the necessary skills related to the world of work, how to live independently, social skills, and personal finance. Students in Mr. Curton’s class engage in volunteer work in places such as the Community Food Share at the YMCA, where they bag and hand out produce. They also get to enjoy crafts and games with the residents at the Life Care Center, and they help shelve books at the Longmont Public Library.

“We do a lot of work around their everyday social skills, and a lot of the situations they might encounter in a work setting, such as communications,” shared Curton. “We integrate those skills while we’re out in the community.”

Another skill they work on is centered around exploration. “We talk about their interests, their passions, and what they enjoy,” shared Curton. “We look at different careers and the expectations for those careers – we explore what their vision of living independently looks like.”

Students are also exposed to experiences that might be of interest to them. Last year, they had the opportunity to visit Front Range Community College on Fridays, where they were able to experience a college campus. “It was a great experience because many LSACE students hadn’t been on a college campus before,” added Curton.

In addition to fostering skills for work success, students with disabilities also have many opportunities to feel connected to their schools and build social skills. A highlight of these programs is St. Vrain’s annual Unified Day of Champions.

Inspired by the Special Olympics, and as an athlete herself, in 2013 Hannah Foster began her Capstone Project for the Silver Creek Leadership Academy by creating an event for all of St. Vrain Valley School’s special needs students to come together to participate in different activities, such as kickball, tennis, basketball, and bowling. 

For students with unique needs, Unified Day of Champions is a day for them to wear a team shirt, participate in sports, and to have fun. “It breaks down barriers and builds friendships, creating a more inclusive environment for all,” shared Carrie Adams, Silver Creek Leadership Academy Program Director. “Students really start to see other students as the funny, kind, happy people they are.”

“Seeing students of all abilities be able to play sports and get their bodies moving is such an incredible thing,” shared Foster. Students interact with each other and experience what every high school athlete feels when they run onto the field and everyone is cheering for them.