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Kristen DeGregorio prepares her special ed students for life after school

She teaches high school students with disabilities. “I can improve the reading level, but what is the purpose if they cannot use it in a real-world context?”

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Each week, Kristen DeGregorio tries to teach her students a new skill, such as teamwork and positive body language. She calls them “employability skills,” and this is how she prepares them for the real world. DeGregorio teaches 18- to 21-year old students with intellectual disabilities at Frankford High School and is one of the 60 people to win Lindback Awards this year for distinguished teaching.

When she was a student herself, DeGregorio struggled in Souderton Area High School in Montgomery County. But one class that she really connected with during high school was an elective course in which students could earn credits by working in special education.

She did much better in college, attending Montgomery County Community College before transferring to Temple and earning a bachelor’s degree in elementary and special education.

DeGregorio taught middle school for three years at James R. Ludlow Elementary, a K-8 school, where she worked with Need in Deed, a nonprofit organization that helps teachers use service learning in their curriculum. “Service learning is life-changing for me in the classroom,” she said.

She has worked at Frankford High for the last seven years. In her current assignment, DeGregorio helps her students transition out of high school. About 70% of adults with intellectual disabilities are unemployed, and registering for available support services, such as recreational activities and day programs, is very difficult.

Without the right supports, she said, these students are more at risk for mental illness and its hardships, including homelessness.

Learning life skills

DeGregorio’s goal is to make sure that all her students are signed up with organizations and agencies that help people with intellectual disabilities and that their families have the support they need to access these services. When she conducted a survey of her students’ families, she said, about 90% of them said they need help in accessing these services.

As part of her job, DeGregorio creates school-based vocational programs so students can acquire important life skills. She created the Community Love Cafe at Frankford, where her students sold drinks to school staff. In the process, they learned interpersonal skills and how to deal with money.

They planned to donate their cafe profits to the Sunday Love Project, an organization that gives food to the homeless. However, Margot Murphy of the Sunday Love Project expressed an interest in having the class make “community love bags,” packing up food and drinks together. So, DeGregorio’s students began making the bags each week. They created shopping lists, used a budget, located items in a grocery store, and paid for the items.

“It’s just another avenue where they can practice employability skills,” DeGregorio said.

She said she could see instant growth among her students as they practiced vocational skills through projects like the Community Love Cafe.

“I found I was trying to teach life skills in not a real-world context [before],” she said. “When we created a real-life context that was student-led, progress was immediate.”

DeGregorio spoke about one student who would not engage with other people or make eye contact. DeGregorio chose to train her as a barista. In her new position, the student’s interpersonal skills improved. As she became more motivated, she learned to look at people and find ways to initiate and engage in conversation.

“For me, being a good teacher means I am preparing my students to be successful in today’s society,” DeGregorio said. “It doesn’t matter how smart you are, we all need to be able to interact with people and navigate conflict.

“I can improve the reading level, but what is the purpose if they cannot use it in a real-world context?”

DeGregorio believes that the number one focus of a teacher is the relationship with the student and that it is important to build each one’s confidence.

For her, this involves working on how to connect with students who learn differently. “Many of my students have a trauma background,” she said. “No way I can teach if I don’t focus on socio-emotional well-being.

“I really want to know how they’re doing. If they’re not doing well, how can we change the trajectory of each day?”

DeGregorio emphasizes establishing a positive mindset at the beginning of the day. Her students start the morning with a two-minute meditation, and they write down a positive thought to remember during the day.

“If you say negative things, you’re going to feel bad and you’re going to act negatively to other people, but you have the power to change your thoughts, and when you do, you can change your behavior and your outlook,” DeGregorio said, citing the principles for the Cognitive Behavioral Triangle.

She wants her classroom to be “a place that students want to come to and a place they can come and feel good about themselves.”

Part of a good mindset comes with helping the students recognize their strengths.

“Teenagers are so uncomfortable identifying their strengths themselves,” DeGregorio noted. “When we can find their strengths, and we tell them consistently, they will improve.”

The recognition of strengths leads her students to realize that they are capable and to learn to love themselves.

“When they feel good, they can learn,” DeGregorio said. “It all starts with themselves. When they feel good and confident, everything else falls into place.”

Sharing the honor

DeGregorio also firmly believes that supporting students is a team effort. In accepting the Lindback Award, she made a point of recognizing her team of classroom assistants: Joan Walton, Raheem Bell, and Virginia Alvarez, as well as fellow teacher Staci Davenport.

Walton, she noted, came up with the idea of the “Frankford Closet” (a closet that holds winter clothes for students to borrow when needed), takes girls to get their hair braided, and buys students sneakers. Bell has given students his jacket on multiple occasions and once paid for a student’s diploma without being asked. Alvarez is known for her positive presence in the room. And Davenport provides support for autistic students and always collaborates in the Community Love Cafe and with the community love bags.

“When you’re impacting change in a positive way, it takes a community,” DeGregorio said. “It takes a village, and they are a critical part of that village.”

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