The world through different lenses: A glimpse into Special Education at Cam High


Photo by: Serena Sotelo

The most recent art project created by the SPED program students.

There are no typical days in Mr. Brian Murphy’s classroom.

“I taught a girl how to run the other day. It was the first time she’d run in her life. Her hair was flying back, and she was so happy. I remember having the same feeling the first time I rode a bike,” Murphy, a Special Education teacher said. “[My students] have taught me patience, and to accept a little progress at a time.”

The SPED program has been up and running since a federal law was passed in 1975, requiring schools to provide FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) for students with variety of educational impairments, including autism, Down syndrome, visual impairment, traumatic brain injury, blindness, deafness, orthopedic impairment, and other severe learning disabilities.

The program is split into two groups, one higher functioning than the other. Murphy handles the higher functioning class, and Mr. Matthew Mahovlic teaches the second class. The staff also includes six paraeducators, a speech and language pathologist, an occupational therapist, a school psychologist and a behaviorist.

“I make sure they can socialize and teach them everyday life skills,” said Mr. Roo Boldew, paraeducator. “Every day is different. They could be cooperative, but it can also be challenging. It takes patience.”

Both classes take part in a wide variety of on-campus activities throughout the day, including a new recycling program, groundwork, cooking class, computer class, agriculture, PE, and ASB.

According to Murphy, these activities aim to help SPED students develop better functioning skills. “Some of these kids only have one or two seconds of concentration, and that’s what we want to work with. We try to increase that level of on-task behavior,” he said. “That’s usually done by doing grounds-work, recycling, or custodial work- something that’s practical for them.”

Each student has an individualized curriculum, based around their IEP (Individualized Education Plan), which is determined by parents and teachers. The IEP sets the student’s goals for the year in place. “We’ll look at [a student’s] goals from an entire previous semester, and determine from there,”  said Mahovlic. “It all depends on the student, what their needs are, and what kind of curriculum they’re looking for. A lot of it could be community based, a lot of it can be academic.”

Murphy has been working hard over the last year to improve and augment already existing programs. “This year, we extended our recycling, gardening, and custodial programs for them,” said Murphy. “We’re building a fabric between the students and the community.”

Mahovlic also said that a primary goal of the program is to give SPED students a true high school experience. “We’re just trying to get the students involved as much as we can with the everyday campus, which they are,” he said. “It’s up to me to have the different materials to make sure each student gets the most out of their experience here.”

The ultimate goal, however, is to prepare students for the real world, through communication and skill development. Mahovlic said that it takes time to develop these skills in order to take advantage of job opportunities in the future. “The [purpose] is to get them acclimated into society, especially with the domestic skills here,” he said. “One of our biggest goals here is to get students ready for life after graduation. I love working with the students- just helping them get to where they need to go.”

“The work is, how do we suppress these kids’ anger and aggression, because they can’t communicate what they want to? The more they communicate, the more they can blossom, like a flower,” said Murphy.

Murphy works every day to help break down barriers between SPED and general education students both on campus and in the community.

“That’s the magic. These kids are rarely what you think they are,” he said. “There’s an old idea that they’re stupid or not bright, but that’s not true. They have a whole different way of looking at and doing things— it just doesn’t fit society’s little package.”