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Exceptional children making exceptional strides
Dawson Countys Community Based Instruction providing essential skills for students
A-Community based instruction pic1
DCHS students in the Community Based Instruction program take their recently purchased cart through the halls of the high school to deliver freshly brewed coffee from their own coffee shop to faculty and students. - photo by Amy French Dawson County News

The excitement over the Community Based Instruction program that began this year at Dawson County High School is palpable-particularly when speaking to the teachers who are making it work.

Ashley Elliott, Edith Banta and Lacy Hammond are pouring themselves into the exceptional children of DCHS and are finding their way with the newly instituted effort that will give these students opportunities well beyond the walls of the school.

"We are all passionate about it," said Edith Banta who is the lead teacher for the CBI program. "She [Elliott] comes in with a lot of excitement about it and it's contagious."

The idea behind the program is to take traditional academic classroom instruction and apply it to real world circumstances, which is important to any student, but critical for these exceptional children.

Prior to the implementation of the program, this group of almost 20 hardly ever saw the outside of their classroom, let alone the school grounds on any given week day.

"You did reading. You did math. You did writing and you changed classes," Elliott said.

Now the higher functioning students are holding down volunteer jobs-and some more than that-in and around Dawsonville.

"With functional-level kids to do academics, that are even watered down, there's a bit of a disconnect," Banta said. "They are not moving on to that next step that a lot of the general ed students are. So by doing the community based program, we are giving them some tools.

"We still are teaching standards. We are teaching some reading standards and some language, science, social studies but it is all embedded in those vocational skills."

Students are now spending three mornings a week giving of their time at local businesses like Dollar Tree, the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, the Dawsonville Tavern and Shear Experience.

Eventually the plan is to expand to positions at incoming businesses along the Ga. 400 corridor.

Elliott, who moved over the summer from the Fulton County School District, has 19 years of experience helping exceptional children make their way into the community and into jobs.

In Fulton County she helped students find jobs with companies like Siemens and Verizon.

Elliott worked at Alpharetta High School across the hall from Dawson County's now Director of Special Education Hershel Bennett.

When Bennett took the position four years ago, he brought with him the dream of seeing Dawson County students growing in this way. This year it is becoming a reality.

"There are a lot of the things that I've done, that are on my resume, like taking a basketball team to a state tournament or improving SAT scores at a high school as an administrator but this is something that is really changing lives more than those," Bennett said.

While those are all important accomplishments, Bennett says that the kids that went to state will still be great kids and those students that improved their SAT scores will probably still get into the college of their choice, but these students learning these skills will most likely end up with a full-time job and be contributing citizens in the community as a result of this program.

Elliott agreed to come and help make it happen in Dawson County, even before there was a position available for her. She had literally just signed a contract to work in Forsyth when she got the text from Bennett that there was an opening.

Banta, who had been working in special ed at the middle school level for several years, was brought in to work with Elliott and Hammond who is a teacher in the program and already knew the students at DCHS.

Banta's prior business experience coupled with her work in the middle school program made her the perfect candidate to be the program lead at the high school. She has been able to reach out to the local businesses and show them how the program is a benefit to all.

Last year these exceptional children were in a classroom receiving purely academic instruction.

They are now pushing beyond their comfortable boundaries and showing what they are capable of.

"We can find those strengths and those abilities instead of the disability being the glaring thing. They can find a place where they belong in society," Banta said. "It makes them more independent. It's a win-win for everybody."

They are learning responsibility and soft skills, essential work-place traits that will benefit them on several levels as they move forward. Elliott has plans to teach them resume and cover letter writing as well as work on interviewing skills.

The students in this program can come away with a high school diploma and possibly a job.
They have the flexibility to stay in school as a "super senior" until their 22nd birthday, after they graduate.

Super seniors will be able to participate in what is essentially a more intensive internship, working five days a week. They would still be assessed and graded.

The program in Fulton County included bussing four to five students to work five days a week with large companies.

A teacher would be on the job site with the students acting as a liaison between school and employer. Those students came away with positions in the mail room, kitchen and recycling centers.

"Almost all of them received job offers with the companies after graduation," Bennett said.

Though the program is in its infancy at DCHS, there is already one student who has been offered a weekend job as a result of their weekday volunteer time there.

For the students who are not ready or able to travel to a position outside of school, Elliott, Banta and Hammond are finding jobs in-house.

"They do mail delivery, they do shredding. They went around and made recycling boxes and shredding boxes and delivered them," Elliott said. "They do birthday cards for staff."

The group conducts fundraisers like car washes and selling popcorn at lunch time in the cafeteria.

The skills they are acquiring, like counting money, making change, preparing food, cleaning up and just chatting with fellow students, will be invaluable.

The students have also opened a coffee shop in the high school library and have learned the ins and outs of staying on a budget, how much creamer is just right for delicious coffee and the difference between brand name and generic coffee products.

Though Banta, Elliott and Hammond are the face of the program at the high school, Bennett said there are so many behind the scenes that make it possible.

From Principal Richard Crumley and high school special ed lead John Kenney, who helped start the program, to the bus drivers transporting the students.

"I want to thank many people, behind the scenes, making it possible," Bennett said. "I want to thank the community, all those businesses who have welcomed the students without anything to draw on."

They have all been really good partners with us," Banta said.

The paraprofessionals, according to Bennett, are the backbone of the program-Sylvie Lundy, Linda Halsey, Terrey Hashley, Tammy Daniels and Judy Harrell.

The weekly schedule for the students includes academic, in-classroom days on Mondays.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings the students venture out with job coaches to report to work and put in the hours.

Fridays are community days. Early in the year, those were spent at Walmart purchasing supplies on a budget to get the coffee shop up and running.

A couple of weeks ago, they visited with residents in an assisted living facility.

Last week they visited the fire department and talks of a special needs education program in conjunction with emergency services are currently underway.

As for the future of the program, Bennett said the plan is to implement it at the middle school level with a focus on the in-school jobs. Eventually, a version of the program will also be a part of the elementary schools in Dawson County.

Though success has come early and the program is further along than anticipated, he still emphasizes progressing, but not rushing.

"We want to do it the right way," Bennett said.