At first glance, it might look like a standard classroom—student desks in the center, a device charging by the teacher’s desk, a bean bag area, colorful teaching aids hanging from the wall.
Look a little closer, though, and you’ll notice that all of the posters featuring days of the week have a tactile component. “Tuesday” includes a yellow fuzzy ball. “Wednesday” is a string in the shape of a hump. “Friday” is a set of square gems.
All of the textures are universal associations created by the American Printing House for the Blind. The charging device isn’t an iPad, it’s a Tobii, an eye-tracking device that helps students communicate without speech. And the bean bags are a perfect alternative for students who spend most of their days in a wheelchair.
These are just a few of the accommodations at DSST: Conservatory Green’s Multi-Intensive (MI): Severe Center, one of eight special education centers in DSST’s network.
What is an MI: Severe Center?
Multi-intensive centers serve students who have cognitive, physical, or adaptive disabilities. The “Severe” classification mean that each of the ten students at Conservatory Green’s MIS center has three or more disabilities, which could range from orthopedic impairments, blindness, or health-related diagnoses. The ten sixth graders at DSST: Conservatory Green’s center need assistance with feeding and personal care, and over half of them speak English as a second language.
Such a wide range of needs doesn’t stop Conservatory Green’s team of special educators from helping students develop academic and functional life skills. Students with greater mobility attend social studies, science, P.E. and advisory, integrated with their sixth grade peers.
“We’re not just here to meet their basic needs. We’re here to give students the skills they need,” says Jessica Kellum, Center Program Lead. Skills like reading—making meaning of a sequence of events—don’t culminate in written stories. Instead, “we teach students how to follow a routine for handwashing or opening their locker and unloading their backpack.”
“Melina* was in a wheelchair for the first six years of her education,” says Jessica Kellum, Center Program Lead, pointing to a student who is walking towards us, smiling. DSST wants to empower students to believe in themselves and reach their fullest potential, whatever that may be. For Melina*, that was finding her legs.
She points out another student, who is now capable of going to the restroom and climbing stairs while carrying items by himself. For this student, success is being able to say, “I can walk through the school without a teacher holding my hand.”
We want our Center to be a place of "instruction, real-life application, and independence. The support that I’ve received from my coaches and the network level SPED people has allowed [our center] to be stronger. And when my support team doesn’t know the answer to the question, they use their resources and go out to find it,” explains Jessica.
What is the history of special education at DSST?
Senior Manager of Special Education Ingrid Wulczyn is proud that DSST Public Schools and Denver Public Schools have collaborated to support students with significant disabilities since 2013. DSST has joined “a district-wide effort around establishing parity between districts and charters in the supports and services of students in Special Education, and specifically students served in center-based programs. We have been . . . the charter network with the most [special education] programs.”
DSST Public Schools’ first center began at DSST Stapleton Middle School with an MI: Autism center. “This year we opened four programs to bring us to a total of 8 and we will open an additional four in the 18-19 school year for a total of twelve,” says Ingrid, “We serve students across all disability categories in our programs including Multi-Intensive: Autism, Multi-Intensive: Severe, and Multi-Intensive: Affective Needs.”
Special education is still a young field. As Jessica points out, “Before the 1980s, most of these students would have been institutions,” so DSST is not only providing a much-needed resource for Denver students, it’s also leading the way in adopting best practices from cutting edge special education researchers at Boston College and schools like Jefferson County’s Fletcher Miller School.
What can parents and students expect next?
As the DSST network expands its SPED program offerings, the MI: Severe center at Conservatory Green Middle School will grow too. Currently all of the ten students are sixth graders, and the plan is to admit additional students as this class enters the seventh grade.
“We’re trying to create the model plan so that other DSST schools can implement it,” says Jessica.
Teachers like Jessica are helping DSST Public Schools achieve its mission “to transform urban public education by eliminating educational inequity and preparing all students for success in college and the 21st century.”
Would you like to join our growing innovative Special Education team? Learn more about our programs and find all of our open positions here.
* The names of students have been changed to protect their privacy.