Following her 2007 graduation from Glenelg High School, Jennifer Mascaro knew where she wanted to go with her career. Now, just four years later, that path has landed her at Phelps Luck Elementary School, in Columbia, as a fourth-grade special education resource teacher.
"The overall community feel, the supports we'll have for the students …it's an exciting environment to start in," Mascaro said. "The special education team has been very welcoming and interested in doing the very best we can for these children."
Compared to other jurisdictions where special-need students are taught in self-contained classes, Howard County has inclusive classrooms, where there are both children with and without disabilities in the classroom with the same teacher. As a resource teacher, Mascaro will work will select children in their classroom or bring them to her resource room, where she can work one-on-one with a student who might need assistance on a particular concept.
Mascaro is excited to return to a Howard County classroom as a teacher when school starts Monday, Aug. 29, but like some students, might have some first-day jitters.
"I have very high expectations of myself and want to make a difference in the lives of these children," Mascaro said. "I hope I do as well as I would like to, especially (because) in special education, you have a very big role in their lives."
Mascaro has a personal connection to working with individuals with disabilities.
"My grandmother is hemiplegic, meaning the right-half of her body is completely paralyzed, which affects her motor skills, mobility and speech," said the 22-year-old Ellicott City resident.
But Mascaro said she never viewed her grandmother as disabled.
"I never really looked at her other than another person. She was always just my grandmother," Mascaro said.
Mascaro's realization that her grandmother was handicapped led her to work for seven summers during high school and college as a paraeducator at the school system's Regional Early Childhood Center. There, she worked in a program that offered additional weeks of school for special education students.
"I started working there when I was 16, and I knew from the first summer this is what I wanted to do," Mascaro said.
She graduated this spring from the University of Delaware with a Bachelor of Science degree that certified her in early childhood education and special education.
Following her graduation, she applied for teaching positions in Howard, Frederick, Carroll, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and had three offers.
Mascaro said her passion and dedication for the position came through during the interview process.
"I love working with these children. I think you do have to present yourself well and highlight (your) experience in that interview," she said.
Phelps Luck Elementary Assistant Principal Nancy Ottey echoed those sentiments.
"Jennifer displayed a genuine enthusiasm and passion for teaching," Ottey said. "She presented a rich background of content knowledge and discussed a desire to get to know her students before the first day of school. Jennifer displayed true professionalism and that set her apart from other applicants."
Mascaro is pleased to have the opportunity to start her career in Howard County.
"Through my own experiences here (in Howard County), I had wonderful teachers that I'll always remember," she said. "And in the summers at RECC, I saw the quality of services, instruction and support offered to students that are above and beyond anything else you will find in another school program. There is nothing similar to the summer program (RECC) in another county that I've come across. It's very impressive and that's the cutting edge of special education and that's the kind of environment I wanted to be in."
Mascaro acknowledged that accommodating all her students' needs will be challenging.
"I hope I will be able to balance my time equally among all of my students, including their educational needs and instructional needs," she said. "And to collaborate with all the people involved to make the students' instruction successful."
She added: "You have to have that special collaboration to make special education work. You have to see a person as a person first, then you see the disability."