Thursday, December 30, 2010

Knoxville, Tenn., school program provides socialization classes for students with Asperger's

From The Knoxville News:

The praying mantis ate all the cicada except for its legs, just like 8-year-old Baylor McCubbin said it would.

He told his grandmother Lynn Oravitz the mantis would do this and then he experimented.

Baylor's love of bugs, gemstones and discovery led Oravitz and her family to find some way to indulge his knack for science.

Their answer came at the beginning of the school year when Jeff Knox spoke to parents at Baylor's school, St. John Neumann Catholic School, about a new program.

Knox, an adapted physical education teacher for the Knox County school system, began School Support in September to offer after-school enrichment classes in science, math and art for kids across the county who excel academically.

"The end of the day is 3 o'clock, and a lot of kids are wanting more," Knox said. "Kids who are very good athletes, there is a lot to choose from."

Students who have a talent for music also have activities.

But Knox asks what about the kid who loves doing math problems or building things or picking up strange bugs? He said there wasn't much offered in Knox County.

"There is a lot for remedial, but not for the student who loves science so much," Knox said. "My brother was identified as someone who excelled at math and science at an early age, but he had the same classes as everyone else."

Since the fall, about 30 kids from several different schools have joined Knox's classes, which run weekly for an hour. They cost about $25 for the hour, and teachers around the district who have the same passion for a subject teach them. Each class has only six students.

School Support also offers a socialization class for students with Asperger's syndrome, which Knox also felt was needed. Asperger's is an autism spectrum disorder that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction.

The classes are for third- through fifth-graders, but Knox hopes to bring them to middle school students in the future.

They are taught at St. John Neumann, because that is where Knox found space to hold the classes.

He knew the principal, Bill Derbyshire, and went to church there. He said Derbyhire had been looking for the same type of program.

Baylor recently bragged to Derbyshire about getting to "blow something up" as soon as the classes start back after the first of the year.

During the exploratory science class, students learn to work and think like real scientists. They design their own experiments based on their own questions and don't just follow directions. The experiments are catered to each child's interests.

"Three students will be doing a chemistry experiment while the other three are doing ecology, picking leaves out back," Knox said.

In advanced placement art, students learn painting, drawing and ceramics, but after the first of the year they will choose their favorite medium to complete a project that Knox hopes to submit to contests.

The advanced math and science class combines the two subjects just like they are linked in a laboratory or engineering firm.

"In our education society, we wait until after high school graduation to specialize, but we can identify children's strengths as early as kindergarten or first grade," Knox said. "We should steer their education toward their strengths and interests instead of everyone fitting the same mold."

He said the district has a great curriculum, teachers and programs, but he wanted to do something to support the curriculum and enrich students who wanted it.

Teachers only have seven and a half hours in the day, Knox said.

"The same as the basketball player who wants to make the team or the music student who wants to make first chair in the band, they find the resources, classes and people to help them get there," Knox said. "I am providing that academically."

During socialization class, which Knox admits is different than the others, students learn how to look people in the eye and compete fairly, along with other life skills.

"These kids don't learn socialization through observation," Knox said. "Kids with Asperger's can learn it, but you need to do it directly."

Knox hopes to offer School Support at another location in the future.

Baylor, who takes the science and math courses, is making concoctions and learning short cuts for math problems. It's made him more comfortable with math and given him an outlet for his curiosity, Oravitz said.

"He is learning so much," Oravitz said. "There's been a number of things he really, really enjoyed. It has expanded his excitement about science."