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Alta High School to pilot U of U College of Education Intro to Special Education

Shamby PolychronisShamby Polychronis


From Sandy Journal, Nov. 11, 2019
By Julie Slama |

Alta High student Chelsea Pierson is looking to add a new course to her schedule in January — Introduction of Special Education, offered by the University of Utah.

“I have loved being a peer tutor and am a member of Happenings, where we do activities with students with special needs every month,” said the senior, who would like to pursue a career in horse therapy or nursing. 

She and classmate Stefani Helm listened as the new partnership program was outlined where students would attend one class per week, then complete assignments through working as a peer tutor. 

“These are meant to weave together really well,” U of U special education professor Shamby Polychronis said.

However, instead of taking the class at the U, it would be offered at the high school for two hours after school and tuition would be reduced from “thousands to $60,” Polychronis said.

“Whether or not it’s a career path, it can count toward credits and save an incredible amount — and it is a class that I think everyone would benefit from,” she said. “It gives people a better perspective and understanding on relationships and working with people with disabilities.”

Plus, Canyons School District Human Resources Administrator Jo Jolley said the credits would transfer to any college or university.

Polychronis said that while more people are familiar with the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s, fewer realize that the People with Disabilities Act came about around the same time.

“There used to be the notion that ‘special people go to special places.’ That’s problematic. We need to be respectful and learn how to make better opportunities. We have a sense of justice, inclusion, respect and care,” she said.

Helm said she has learned that through volunteering with SNAP — a church program that partners volunteers with a person with special needs to interact and do activities together.

“I’m going to be a peer tutor next semester so I thought I should learn about this class,” she said, adding that in college she may pursue African studies or math. “It’s important to learn about all people.”

Alta was selected to pilot this program because it has a strong peer tutor program, Jolley said.

Alta Principal Brian McGill said they have about 30 slots for students to explore this course, and that high school students are encouraged to be a peer tutor. On an average, McGill says there are 100 peer tutors who help students with disabilities.

“We feel that many of these students already are thinking of careers in education and special education, so this is a way we can further prepare them,” he said. “There’s a shortage in special education teachers and this gives them a jump start in determining their future.”

Jolley said to help encourage people to enter the field, the state adds $1,000 to the salary of any teacher with a special education degree and that Canyons School District adds another $3,000 on top of that for any teacher with the same degree teaching in a special education classroom.

Canyons’ Special Education Program Administrator Nate Evaldson said this pilot course allows students to learn about the field.

“It’s giving high school students a chance to explore, jump in and learn more about special education and could be a head start for college,” he said. “It gives them a chance to know more about it before they commit to a post-secondary option.”

Polychronis agrees, saying it is similar to other fields that may have an introduction to engineering or introduction to business in high school. 

“We’re giving students that introduction that they may not be getting otherwise until college,” she said. “There are a lot of misconceptions about the skills needed in special ed. You’ve got to be able to think on your feet.”

Alta High special education teacher Chris Clarkson said her peer tutors are students who show compassion and are upbeat.

“These are students who are positive and flexible as they may be able to switch what they’re doing in a moment’s notice,” she said. “They have to have patience to get everyone on the same page, learn classroom management and be able to run programs and collect data.”

Polychronis said the coursework may include collecting data, learning to differentiate assignments and record supportive behavior amongst peers and teachers, helping students game a better understanding of the field.

“For example, they may record if a hearing-impaired student signs to request help or students with behavioral concerns, raise their hands to use the bathroom,” she said. “This can help drive decisions that will benefit students in the class.”

Evaldson said this will benefit students as they look at teaching in the field.

“They’ll get a lot of practical experience as a peer tutor and gain an understanding of these students who may have intense needs and behavioral struggles,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity, for these are students who are trustworthy and willing to put themselves out there; it may give them a head start toward their career and passion.” 

Last Updated: 8/31/21