East Mecklenburg High is the first in CMS to create a unique learning space for students with disabilities. After two years and several donations, students on the Extensions diploma track have a simulated studio apartment where they can learn life skills.
The apartment features a small kitchen where the students learn to cook meals and basic kitchen safety. There is also a washer and dryer where the students learn to wash and fold clothes. In another area, there is a twin bed where students learn to outfit the bed. A plaque above the door welcomes people to the Eagle L.I.F.E. (Learning for Independent Future Experiences) area.
The kitchen area is a student favorite because so many of them like to cook.
"I love to cook. I have a homemade baked-apple recipe that I made up, and everyone says it is really good," said student Nathan Woolard. "At home, I make salads, a meatball casserole and mashed potatoes like Alexis and I are making today."
The Extensions track has a curriculum based on life skills. Students begin the program at age 14 and can remain until age 22. The goal is to help them develop the abilities they need to live independently or interdependently in a home or community.
"Everybody needs a purpose," said Jennifer Degen Mullis, an Exceptional Children (EC) process coordinating teacher. "In years past, people didn't put students with disabilities at the forefront, but they are a person before they are a characteristic or a disability. Providing them with skills that let them know they are not less than is important."
Calvin Osborne, 21, took the skills he learned in the classroom and got a job at a nursing home.
"I've become more confident, thanks to my teachers, and they've taught me leadership," said Calvin. "I like going to work, and the people I work with are awesome."
EC teacher David Cioch said working with his students and the other staff members in the department is like having a second family because of the relationships that are built over time.
"We often have our students for eight years, so we get to know them and their families very well," said Cioch. "Our students spend time learning at school, but we are also out in the community during the week, working with various nonprofits. Networking is vital. It can open doors for them."
Students will also practice career-based skills in the new space by providing a washing and drying service to the school's athletic department. Students will learn customer service, record-keeping, budgeting and finance.
"We want all of our students to have a sense of belonging," said Principal Rick Parker. "Relationships and letting people know how much you care about them is important. I'm extremely proud of our staff and the work they've done to make this simulated space a reality."