It is safe to say that École secondaire Neelin High School is always thriving with activity. Between academics, sports games and tournaments, choir endeavours, club activities and much more, our Neelin community rarely settles. There is one group, however, that is a member of our Neelin home and they certainly deserve to be the highlight of a Brandon Sun printed article. This particular group is made up of those that belong to our very own Life Skills program.
Neelin’s Life Skills program is made up of 42 special needs students and 28 educational assistants who are there to work with the students throughout the day. We are lucky to have had the Life Skills program running at Neelin for more than 15 years. Considering that this is the only high school in Brandon with a Life Skills program, we have a pretty sweet suite for these students to spend their school days in. The Life Skills Suite is not only made up of classrooms, but includes other rooms with equipment that are all wheelchair-accessible and switch-activated to help meet student’s needs.
One of these rooms is the Sensory Room, which contains plenty of switch-activated equipment to help calm a distressed student’s nerves. This room is designed to help students who lack the ability to calm themselves down or cope with anxiety. Here, they can listen to soothing music, watch different patterns projected onto the walls or even wrap themselves in weighted blankets for some deep pressure. There are many features to this room that tackle the senses of sight, hearing and touch to reach a student’s distressed state of mind and help them to calm their nerves.
The Life Skills Suite, having once been a home economics classroom, also has a kitchen where the students can prepare a morning coffee break snack, food for the canteen and lunch program meals that are prepared on Tuesday and Thursdays. Half of the kitchen is wheelchair accessible, with lowered counters and stoves, ovens and sinks that students can operate from their wheelchair. The food that is made in this kitchen often stays at Neelin, as well; the Life Skills students prepare the fantastic meals and snacks that sell in the school’s canteen.
The last couple of rooms, apart from the two classrooms, include the living room and hygiene quarters. The living room provides comfortable seating arrangements. The three classrooms are where students have math, literacy and community living class.
While the Life Skills Suite seems fully equipped with materials for its students, a lot of their learning can come down to having an individualized program. Since the students in the Life Skills program all have varied disabilities, it is important that each student is met with the types of challenges at school that are suitable for them. The three teachers work hard to find and use resources for each student and tailor it to their specific needs.
I had a chance to sit down with a couple of students who are a part of the Life Skills Suite as well as take some mainstream classes, Tanner and Trey Young. This is their third year enrolled in the Life Skills program and next year will be their last. They both had good memories to share of the Life Skills Suite and the activities they got to partake in. Tanner mentioned that his favourite activities to do with his friends at Life Skills is to go swimming at the YMCA, go bowling and when he took part in Work Experience. Work Experience is an integral piece of Life Skills programming and is an opportunity for Neelin’s Life Skills students to travel around town and volunteer at local businesses. Some of the places Tanner mentioned working at were Boston Pizza, Sport Chek and Avis’ Place. This way, students can receive a better understanding of some potential job options that could be around Brandon for them. This also means that they get the chance to help out around town, which is why Tanner enjoyed taking part in Work Experience during his first year at Neelin. He simply liked the feeling of helping others.
As for Trey, his favourite memories of the Life Skills Suite include cooking in the kitchen with the friendly staff. At this, Tanner remembered that he enjoyed baking cookies in the kitchen with his friends. Making lifelong, meaningful connections is a huge part of the Life Skills program.
While Tanner and Trey found Work Experience to be a memorable part of their time in the Life Skills program, it’s just one of multiple features found in students’ schedules. Math and Literacy are both classes that take place in their own classroom within the Life Skills Suite. Other activities that take up students’ mornings are community living and peer connections. Community living is a class in which students have discussions about life outside of school and after graduation. They watch behavioural videos and learn more about how to approach others using good manners. It’s through Community living that work experience enters the picture. In peer connections, all Life Skills students get together in one big group instead of being divided into their different classes and activities. They often go for walks together during this time or head down to the dance studio to do small workouts or yoga. This is also seen as time for the students to help out each other as opposed to the usual scenario of an EA assisting a student. One way they can do this is by an able-bodied student pushing another student in their wheelchair for a change; this is to help get the students interacting in a positive and helpful way that they can feel good about.
While my time visiting the Life Skills Suite may have been brief, I witnessed some rather sweet things from the students. One student was having a rough day, so a friend came by and assured the student that they were there for her. I also learned that I will be ditching my fourth period class on Fridays to go hang out at the Life Skills Suite — but you can’t blame me for not wanting to miss out on their fabulous, fun Fridays! On Friday afternoons, the Life Skills students get to partake in relaxing, fun activities to end their week. Often the girls get together and do manicures, while the boys watch a movie together. The adults working there admit that things can get a little hectic at times, but ultimately, it is worth it to see the incredible growth in their students.
» Julie Murray is a Grade 10 student at École secondaire Neelin High School.