CBI program pushes students to grow independence, learn life skills

October 15, 2019 — by Allison Hartley and Emilie Zhou

Room 401 isn’t packed with the 30 or more students that sometimes inhabit other classrooms on campus. And it’s for a good reason.

This is one of the classrooms where students in the school’s Community-Based Instruction program learn academic concepts as well as master important life skills under more personalized guidance from special education teacher Lisa McCahill, volunteer Kelly Anderson and resource aide Daniel Marble. 

According to McCahill, students in the CBI program typically have moderate to high needs and teaching them to become independent is the main goal of the program.

“We accommodate them and modify things for them,” she said, “but our goal for each individual student is for them to be as independent as possible within their ability.”

There are a total of 27 students, three teachers (McCahill, Courtney Crase-Delp and Kimarette Bou) and seven resource aides in CBI. While the teachers lead instruction and organize individualized plans for the students, the aides help implement the accommodations and modifications within the classroom and during transitions, breaks and lunch. Aides also help supervise students and guide them through daily classroom activities.

McCahill said the program likes to give students space and time to complete tasks on their own rather than acting for them and to communicate with students in an age-appropriate way. Oftentimes, people are used to viewing special-needs students as having things done for them in order to make their lives easier, but McCahill said their students don’t receive any special favors and that while each student has a unique set of needs, they are all teenage students and should be talked to and treated as such. 

“They are integrated with the school and they’re not a separate entity,” McCahill said. “A lot of our students won’t ever be by themselves in the community, but they will probably be in a group. We want them to have the skills where they can not just follow the person in front of them, they’re actually making decisions on their own.” 

Senior Jack Sherman is a mainstream student who began doing school service with the program with McCahill’s students as a helper in his sophomore year. He describes himself as a “very patient” person, a virtue that has lent him success in working with students. For Sherman, he has grown as a result of his experience .

“You have to go into it knowing that it’s not always going to be an easy task, teaching them new things and getting them to do what they know how to do,” Sherman said. 

According to McCahill, the goal for the CBI students’ four years at the school is to be able to generalize the life skills learned in the classroom and in the community. After graduating high school, these students will often move on to a post-secondary program at West Valley and receive district services until they are 22. It’s important for the students to learn to be independent in the community; one of the best outcomes after leaving the district is for students to be directly hired for a job, McCahill said. 

“Our role as teachers is to push them and challenge them,” McCahill said. “It can be as simple as asking to go to the bathroom or staying with the group or possess writing or reading or math needs where they utilize these skills so they can do things and make decisions by themselves.”

While CBI is part of the special education department, its courses are different from the academic resource classes, which are included in the department but generally include students who attend mostly general education classes. The CBI program also has its own classes for students, including classes about life skills, knowing your body, health, cooking and basic academic courses.  

All of the classes “have a spin where they’re based on meaningful topics” to further help students develop independence, McCahill said. For example, math lessons teach students how to make purchases, and social studies classes will focus on both past and current events with a spotlight on how issues might relate to students. 

In addition, the students also get the opportunity to go into the community every Friday. For these trips, the 27 students in the program are divided into three groups of 8-10. Each group goes to a different location and they then rotate locations the following Friday. 

Not only are these outings fun for the students, but they also allow students to practice the skills that they’ve been learning throughout the week. For instance, one group will go to a restaurant to practice talking to a server and calculating a tip, while another group will walk to Saratoga downtown to practice street skills and how to make a purchase at one of the restaurants. 

While some vendors in the community may try to accommodate students by offering to help with payment, McCahill said the most important thing about community trips is independence; students in the CBI program are treated just the same as the rest of students on campus and don’t receive special handouts. 

For junior Tanvi Singh, one of her favorite experiences in the CBI program has been going to Westgate, since she enjoys looking through the different shops and spending time with her friends. 

“I think it is a lot of fun for the special ed because we get to pay our money on our own, and the ones who are more independent can go off and find things,” Singh said. “[It’s useful for students to go] because it will help you do math with counting money and subtracting budgets and remembering how much you save and how much you earned.”

In addition, many CBI students also take electives and participate in extracurricular activities. For example, Singh is currently taking choir and drama and has been part of the school plays including “The Sound of Music,” in which she played a party guest and a townsperson. Although she isn’t acting in the fall play this year, she is excited to be helping as part of the tech crew.

“I loved [performing],” Singh said. “That was my first time [in a play but] I didn’t feel so nervous. I like performing on stages and I usually sing all the time.” 

Resource aide Lisa McCann, who has worked in the program for 16 years, said she’s had many memorable experiences when working with the students. 

“The students are always giving me favorite moments,” McCann said. “Just the things they say are so funny that they don’t realize how funny they are. When they learn something or they suddenly catch onto something, it’s also very exciting and rewarding.”

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