I would not trust Jerry if I were you,” a student shouts. “He can’t do anything right.”
Rachael Kaci, who teaches Palo Alto High School’s Academic Communications, gives the student a long, stern glare.
“Now how do you know that?” Kaci asks in a serious tone. “I’ve known Jerry a lot longer than you have and I think he is more than capable of completing the task.”
She nods at Jerry, who then proceeds to turn the Macs off.
Jerry, whose name has been changed along with other students in the article to protect his identity, is just one of the pupils who benefits from the class.
Kaci continues to walk around the room, giving out encouragements and reminders to the students. The bell rings and everyone begins to exit the classroom.
“Remember to talk to your teachers from other subjects!” she yells above the noise of students packing up at the end of the period. “Have a great day.”
Kaci teaches Academic Communications, a newly established program that is tailored for special needs students with mild to moderate disabilities. This class aims to help the students focus on social and verbal skills.
“[The] goal of Academic Communications is to help students get the most out of life and school,” Paly’s Dean of Students Craig Tuana says. “It is a class designed to help them build skills to effectively navigate their education.”
According to Kaci, Paly has never before offered a complete program for students with learning disabilities. While there was a program in place for students categorized with severe disabilities, there lacked a similar option for the students with mild to moderate disabilities. These moderate disabilities are expressed in terms of IQ, behavioral competence and the need for special services.
In previous years, special need students at Paly could find help from the aides who accompanied them to class, but getting additional assistance from school counselors had to take part outside of school hours, hindering immediate learning opportunities and affecting long-term grades.
Students coming to Paly experienced an abrupt change from the well-organized Palo Alto Unified School District first-to-eighth-grade special needs program to a more independent high school curriculum.
Feeling that the transition into high school could be made easier for new students with disabilities, the Paly administration introduced Academic Communications into the curriculum.
“There was a need for students to receive direct instruction on how to navigate school and effectively and appropriately use communication, both verbally and non-verbally,” Tuana says.
Heidi, a junior in the class, expresses her appreciation for the multiple ways the program has helped her.
“This class really helps me communicate with people who I don’t know,” Heidi says. “It helps me get organized and makes my assignments easier.”
The students Kaci teaches may sometimes challenge her, but she already has the experience necessary to work with special education kids. She has taught both elementary and middle school special education programs in PAUSD.
“I wanted to teach high school kids more because they are more independent and have more of a personality,” Kaci says. She enjoys the challenge of spearheading the new program at Paly and designing her own curriculum.
Kaci tailors her classes to the needs of the students and tries to take into account the challenges and problems the students might come across in other classes.
“Students who take this class also take mainstream classes, so I encourage them to use Google Calendar to keep organized,” Kaci says. “I try to have them talk to their teachers more.”
Her classroom walls are decorated with colorful posters, calendars and reminders for students.
The messages on the wall advise students to show respect towards peers, offer tips about manners and point out the basic rules of socializing, such as not interrupting the speaker.
“Students in this class may interpret things differently than you and I, so I also try and help them with that,” Kaci says. “I try to present things more visually to get the point across better.”
The class usually begins with announcements and a goal of the week. Students then engage in specific strengthening excercises such as speaking activities with their neighbors, or partnered group discussions, an activity which many find enjoyable.
Freshman Karen says the speaking exercises help her a lot.
“I’ve been making more and more eye contact with other people,” Karen says. “I didn’t know that until someone told me.”
Later on in the period, students are allowed to work individually on work assignments from other classes, allowing Kaci to circulate around the room and engage in one-on-one discussion.
The five-to-one student-teacher ratio allows more attention on each student and his or her individual needs.
Even though the program has only been implemented for one semester, Kaci believes it is yielding great results.
“The kids have done great,” Kaci says. “I have seen huge improvements in some of them and improvements in all of them.”
Ben, a freshman in the class, believes that the new class has provided much-needed enrichment.
“The class really helps me manage my time and helps me get things done,” Ben says.
The continuation of the class will be determined by the participants.
“[It] depends on the need of the student,” Tuana says.
According to Tuana, the administration is aware of the benefits the class provides to students and they do not have any plans to expand or discontinue the class, which receives the same steady funding as a normal Palo Alto High School program.
“There are sections [in the budget] allocated for special education, just like general education, and then classes are decided based on needs of students,” Tuana says.
Kaci praises the attention of the administration towards the education of special need students.
“We are very lucky to be in Palo Alto,” Kaci says. “The school district puts a very big emphasis on special education programs.”