Oakland Mills High seniors' $1,000 gift boosts Life Skills program

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE CLASS of 2001 has departed Oakland Mills High School, but the gift its members left behind will benefit a group of students for years to come. The class donated $1,000 for new computer equipment for the school's Academic Life Skills program, a special education program for students with disabilities.

"It was a complete surprise," said Brad Howell, one of the Life Skills teachers. "We were so touched."

The Life Skills program gives specialized instruction, in a school setting, to students ages 14 to 21 with conditions such as mental retardation, autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, Howell said. This year, 28 students were in the class.

"They have fun all day. They love school," he said.

The needs of each student vary, but Howell said that small-group interaction and one-on-one attention are important for most. Four special education teachers and three instructional assistants rely on volunteers from the mainstream student population, called "peer assistants," to help.

This year, 36 seniors spent one or two periods a day with their peers. "We had a very diverse group," Howell said of the assistants.

Because of the variety of students who served as assistants, everyone in the senior class knew a Life Skills student, he added. Although the Life Skills students were well known, their need for new computer equipment was not.

"Our students can benefit greatly from CD-ROMs and the individualized interaction" that new computer software programs can provide, Howell said. Unfortunately, their current computers are not powerful enough to run such programs.

The problem was brought to the attention of senior class officer Erin Villamor through a school assignment.

"In my sociology class, we did a project on improving the school," explained Erin, who was Student Government Association representative for the senior class. Her assignment was to help write an application for a federal grant to obtain funds to improve the Life Skills classroom.

"I had never been in the [Life Skills] room. The grant opened my eyes," she said.

The grant she worked on requested funds for computers and software that would be beneficial to the Life Skills students. The more Erin worked on the grant project, the more convinced she became that, with or without the grant, the Life Skills program needed an upgrade.

Erin brought her concerns to fellow class officers Rachel Clinton, Amy Foreman, Sara Bowman and Nicole Alpert. She persuaded her classmates that the 2001 senior class gift should be a donation to the Life Skills program.

"They thought that was a good idea," she said.

Last month, the class officers surprised the Life Skills staff members by presenting them with a check for $1,000 during the senior awards ceremony.

"They have made a huge difference in the lives of special people," staff members Kim Bradley, Anne Grauel, Anne-Marie Lanz, Paula Murphy, Darnel Myers, Melissa Sullivan and Howell wrote in a letter of gratitude.

Atholton artists

Two pupils from Atholton Elementary School earned recognition for their computer-generated artwork in the Maryland Instructional Computer Coordinators Association computer art contest this spring.

Kaliah Miller, 7, daughter of Linda and Mickey Miller of Kings Contrivance, placed second in the kindergarten-through-grade-two division in March. Anna Nzuzi Kiely, 8, placed third. Anna is the daughter of Nlandu and Ed Kiely, also of Kings Contrivance.

The girls, who have completed second grade, created their entries at school, under the guidance of Atholton art teacher Laurie Stewart and media specialist Joan Bannon.

"They are so talented," Stewart said.

This is the fifth year in a row that the school has been represented at the state level in the MICCA contest. Shelley Johnson, instructional facilitator for the Office of Educational Technologies for the Howard County Board of Education, praised Stewart and Bannon for encouraging computer use in school.

"I am so impressed with them. They are trying to keep up with technology," she said.

Anna's and Kaliah's parents knew that their daughters were artistic, but they, too, were impressed with the skills that Stewart and Bannon taught the children. Ed Kiely said he "was astounded" when he saw Anna's entry depicting ballet dancers. "We said, 'Wow, you can do that on a computer?'"

Linda Miller said that at home, Kaliah draws with "markers and paint and whatever she can grab." But Kaliah likes the advantages of digital drawing. "You can color easier," she said. "And you can just press a button and erase."

The winning entries can be seen on the MICCA Web site, www.miccaonline.org.

Parting words

What is Oakland Mills High School English teacher Allison Miller doing this summer? "Just hangin' out with my baby," she said.

Her "baby" is 13-month-old Hannah.

"It's been tough being a teacher and leaving her every day," Miller said. She plans to take Hannah to "the beach, the pool, the park, whatever," and "enjoy her as much as I can."

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