Viper Special Education Boosters cap off 2nd year

Rising junior Abby Dennis had Down Syndrome and was excited to share her photos at the exhibit at Cups & Cones. Abby’s mom Lisa founded the VHS SPED Booster Club in 2016 in order to better support the school’s special education students and teachers.

Students showcase their photography

By SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News

The Vandegrift High School Special Education Boosters or SPED the first booster club of their kind in Texas    held an exhibit of student photos last month at Cups & Cones in Steiner Ranch.

About 30 photos were on display at the show on June 4 and were hand-selected by the students who took them. The five students were members of a 2017-18 vocational education class at VHS created especially for students with developmental delays and disorders.

“We used photography to teach vocational skills,” explained vocation teacher Ana Caldas. The task especially required the use of, “a lot of social skills… (The students) all know better now to ask anybody if they can take their picture before just snapping.”

Though with her students in the classroom all year, Caldas was still reminded of her students strengths through their photos. “They are creative. They are capable. They are unique. And if you just let them do what they want to do they’ll come up with great things.”

The five students photographed a divergence of subjects. Every student, however, pointed out a favorite photo taken during a class field trip to Graffiti Park at Castle Hill in Austin.

“We went to the graffiti park then we took some pictures,” explained senior Chris Lucido. Added senior Michelle Dieudonne, “It’s like amazing. I just love it.”

Another of Dieudonne’s favorite photos was also taken downtown, of a bird perched on a fountain. “I like that one because it was downtown, it was nice outside, and I love birds.”

SPED teachers were able to offer photography as part of their vocational program thanks to the support of the SPED Boosters.

Current SPED President Lisa Dennis founded the SPED boosters. As the parent of a student with special needs, she was inspired to start the program as a response to “a feeling of helplessness over the years for how to best support our kids and get the teacher the resources they needed. I think we have a lot of great teachers in our schools, and I think their hands are tied sometimes because their budget is so low.”

Now that the booster club is in place, “It’s amazing,” said Caldas, whose idea it was to add a photography element to the vocational skills class. “(Having booster support) allowed me to experiment.”

Vocational Coach Olivia Gallarda, who works with students to train and place them in jobs in the community, explained the importance of programs like the vocational class. In the past, “There was a lot of depression and isolation (among special needs individuals). With programs like the vocational class, “If you put somebody to work, it gives them a sense of purpose. And we all need a sense of purpose. I think that’s our goal.”

Gallarda’s job involves making sure students are ready for the workforce before they graduate. “We try to get the kids out in the community… We only take juniors and seniors out on the job sites. And we are always there shadowing them.”

Her own son is a graduate of the VHS vocational program, having trained at Cups & Cones.

“Getting that experience helped him. So when he got out of high school, he was able to get a job with Randalls. Next year… he’s going into Project Search, working with Northwest Seton (Hospital)” where he will be trained onsite to perform various jobs at the hospital, Gallarda said.

But he’ll still be at Randalls on the weekends, she added. “He loves his job.”

Whereas in the past business owners might have been reluctant to employ those with special needs, now, “People want to know, how can we help? I think educating our community… helps our society. And it helps and our community. And it helps the (disabled) person. So we help each other.”

In addition to on-the-job training provided at local job sites, Caldas is excited to see that institutions of higher learning are also getting in on preparing special needs students for independent living.

“There’s a growing number of programs in higher education institutions for students with some kind of special needs,” said Caldas, including at University of Texas Austin, which recently launched its E4 Texas program, training students to be personal care attendants to the physically disabled and infirm.

Kim Hartman is the incoming SPED Booster Club president and has a daughter with special needs. For her, “It’s been a joy to be able to fund our teachers and support the curriculum in the classroom.”

Looking ahead, she hopes that next year the program can increase their sponsorship from the four local sponsors they’ve had in their first two years.

“In our third year, as we move forward we are hoping to fund additional curriculum for the department, which may include a foreign language. We also are hopeful that we can include an additional on-campus vocational opportunity.”

Hartman wants nothing more than for the program to contribute to the overall success of VHS. “Vandegrift is known for so many great things,” she said. “I want them to be known for their special education program too.”

“Our students are here. They are part of this community,” emphasized Caldas. “And they are ready to be hired for different jobs. They can make great contributions to the community.”

Rising VHS junior Val Figueroa-Acosta loved the class field trip to Graffiti Park in Austin and plans to take a double block of vocational classes next year.

Michelle Dieudonne with some of her favorite photos. Michelle works at H-E-B. “I like it cause I see a lot of my friends there.”

Chris Lucido will attending UT in the fall as a part of the E4 Texas program. While at VHS, Chris was a football manager and bat boy for VHS Baseball. His photos reflected his passion for sports.

SPED vocational students on a field trip to Graffiti Park in Austin. The students used photography to advance their vocational skills and knowledge. From left: Michelle Dieudonne, Abby Dennis, Val Figuroa-Acosta, Chris Lucido and Ryan Leonard.