Photos by Kim Sanford
A student loads soda into a vending machine, grouping the cans by flavor. Nearby, classmates hang shirts on racks, sorting them by size and color, and display hats and glasses on rotating racks.
Welcome to The Den at Redwood School in Stockton, which resembles a mini-mart, but is actually a vocational training center that prepares students with moderate to severe disabilities for employment in the outside world.
The Den was created by special education teacher Jennifer Barry last year with a $20,000 grant from CTA’s Institute for Learning. The funding allowed her to purchase a vending machine, adaptive technology such as toggle switches that allow students to use body movements to manipulate machinery and computers, and software that teaches workplace and social skills.
The Den enhances training opportunities for 240 students ages 14-22 with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, and other cognitive disabilities that create challenges in attaining employment. It’s an upbeat environment — focusing on students’ abilities rather than challenges — in a cheery, large room that offers four types of work settings: office, retail, food service and assembly of items.
The setup reflects Barry’s teaching style.
“I really look at everything with an attitude of ‘Why not?’ Why not let my students go to a restaurant, or wherever peers are going?” says Barry, president of the San Joaquin County Educators Association. “I approach things thinking I am going to try something that my students may be successful at, or something they tried before and were not successful at, and see what happens.”
Barry has been teaching special ed for 19 years within the San Joaquin County Office of Education (SJCOE). Currently, she has 12 students at Redwood, a center that serves special education students as young as 6. A third of her students work part time in community businesses, including movie theaters, restaurants and stores. Their salaries are paid by the state through the WorkAbility I program, which places students in jobs based on their interests, abilities and aptitudes.
“One reason I love working with special education students is that they are like little puzzles, and I have to figure out how to help every student be successful,” Barry says. “What I did with student A might not work with student B, so I have to figure out something else. It challenges me to think of creative ways to find access — whether it’s access to curriculum, access to peers, or access to new ways of communication.”
Barry also keeps a healthy perspective in her work. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, to teach special ed takes a special type person, you must be so caring and patient.’ That’s true, but what also helps is having a good sense of humor and not taking things personally. A student might say the most random things, which can make me laugh. When they cuss me out, I don’t take it personally. I know that student is trying to let me know he or she is not happy with what’s going on, and I try to be empathetic to how they are feeling.”
The Den is separate from Barry’s classroom, and is used by her students four days a week for a half hour each time. Other teachers use it once or twice a week. It is open to all SJCOE students, who come from special ed classes housed on general education sites in Manteca Unified, Lincoln Unified and Escalon Unified school districts.
“My students may not be able to express how The Den impacts them, but I can see their progress,” Barry says. “In the beginning, I had to sit with them and explain each step. Four months later they come in and pick up a task and don’t need someone sitting next to them. I can see that they are excited and proud they’ve mastered something.”
Our 2019-2020 Innovation Issue
Jennifer Barry is one of the innovative educators we highlight this year. Meet the rest:
- Sherinda Bryant teaches English through a social justice lens
- James Gensaw helps Native American youth connect to their culture
- Somphane Hunter creates community in the kitchen
- Daniel & Dennis Gibbs set a STEM career path for students
- Becky McKinney builds relationships; students learn NGSS along the way
- Juan Padilla‘s big idea brings science opportunity to all kids
- Jorge Perez creates an oasis of scientific excellence at community college
The Den has received strong community support. Target donated shelving and materials; San Joaquin County put fresh paint on the walls and new linoleum on floors; and the Junior League revitalized a greenhouse that will eventually be used in the program.
Last spring The Den held an open house, and attendees included small businesses that employ students, potential employers, community members and administrators. Such public interaction, says Barry, boosts student confidence and improves social skills.
“People underestimate what kinds of things these students can do and how productive they can be,” says Barry. “I’m very proud of what they are accomplishing here.”