A special family: a closer look into the Special Education Program at DGS


Julia Cahill

The Special Olympics team participates in many activities around school including the Homecoming parade.

For general education students like Kayla O’Leary who are looking for a place to belong in the big hallways of Downers Grove South, it can feel like home when you finally find somewhere you belong. Whether it be in a sport, club or activity, everyone eventually finds their place. For this DGS senior, the special education program is where she calls home.

Like many other students, O’Leary got involved by chance. She was placed into the P.E leading program to be a leader first period with the special education kids and from then on she found herself enjoying every second she spent with the kids.

“I never really had an interest in it and I was never really involved in it. And then second semester last year I was put into it by the leadership program for P.E. leading,” O’Leary said. “And after that I noticed that when I didn’t go to first period I would have an off day because I didn’t have the special education kids to make me laugh and put me in a good mood for the rest of the day.”

There are many ways to get involved in the special education program here at DGS. Junior Ben Skibbe got involved by taking up a resource period in the special education room and instantly felt a bond with the kids he hung out with every day.

“As soon as I came here I knew one of the girls who was in Ms. Caffrey’s class, so I emailed her and asked if there was an opportunity I could have to possibly student aid. So I went to the office, picked up a form and now it is what I have been doing for the past three years,” Skibbe said. “I aid 4th period and I think my biggest part is just being their as a friend and it helps that they are so great to be around.”

Special Service Teacher Shannon Lahey attended DGS as a student and has a long history with the program.

“I went to DGS and aided in the classroom I work in now, and when I was a freshman someone asked me if I wanted to be a student aid, so I started working as an aid at the beginning of high school and fell in love with it. When I graduated I found out that the Special Education teacher here was retiring so I applied and now I have been here for nine years, so it really came full circle for me,” Lahey said.

The special education program itself spreads far away from the classroom. There are many clubs, organizations and activities involved with the program like Special Olympics and Friendship Club.

Special education teacher Julia Cahill enjoys a lot about the program that goes on outside of the classroom.

“Every year we take a multi-needs trip so it’s like a mini vacation. We went to Schaumburg last year, which doesn’t sound fancy but we go to a hotel and it is always the highlight of my year,” Cahill said.

Junior and coach for the Special Olympics team Ana Grogan loves what she does but also believes that when it comes to resources and time, the special education program cannot be paid enough attention by the activities office as a whole.

“Student are affected by the stigma and as a coach, I noticed we do not get as much recognition as the general education sports. I think we can fix it is by talking about it during things like respect week and having videos like some of the mustang way videos. The more people who are involved in the activity, the more push we have to get people higher up to get involved and give us more gym time and be aware,” Grogan said.

Coming from a different perspective, Lahey says that DGS has progressed so much since when she was a student and the resources have grown tremendously and that is something to celebrate.

“One thing we always have to remember is that what’s fair isn’t always equal to everybody. I actually believe that DGS has made huge leaps in incorporating our kids with disabilities. Before we didn’t have the adaptive P.E class with the leaders so it was like wherever there were leftovers we would go. Now we are doing the adaptive P.E. class with units and buddies and there’s schedules, so it has been a huge change for our students,” Lahey said. “There is always going to be room for improvement no matter if it was nine years ago or now. We have grown so much because when I was here, the students were respected and people would be nice to them and wouldn’t be as included. But now my students are super popular, they walk down the hallway, people say hi to them and that’s because they have been given so many more opportunities.”

Student interaction is something that Lahey says is very important for the Special Education students and their experience here at DGS, so she encourages more general education students get involved outside of the classroom.

“I would like to see more involvement from the general education students in the different clubs like go green club and friendship club because we see a lot of the same students who are also P.E leaders or aids. Just getting those other students we have not tapped into yet to at least come and give it a try and then we will have that much more support,” Lahey said.

Although working with the kids can be a highlight of the day, there are always going to be struggles when it comes to get use to the environment and that is true for any job that deals with high school students. O’Leary had to get use to the process of getting to know the kids and their wants and needs.

“I started in the middle of junior year and I had never worked with a special education student before so it was new to me especially because I work with the non verbal students. It was kind of like a shot in the dark and I kept asking myself what I was suppose to do. So at first it was hard to adjust because one of the students can’t speak at all and could only make noises,” O’Leary said. “My biggest struggle was trying to figure out what they were trying to communicate with me but now that I have worked with them so long, I can tell by their body language what they are trying to say.”

Lahey says that like with any job working with kids, there will always be some bumps in the road ,but they can be solved with patience and time.

“A day does not go by where we do not have some sort of struggle. Obviously we have nine students with varying disabilities and abilities and different kind of behavioral needs. Getting through it is just being consistent and making sure that you know your students and you know what works for them,” Lahey said.

New special education teacher Adam Petersen is still adjusting to the challenges posed in the classroom but is learning more and more every day.

“I think the only struggles we have hit are struggles that they have every single day. Every day is different for them so just trying to adapt and coming up with different ideas on the fly to try to figure out to get them through. Whether it be a behavior they are having or just having a tough time. Using my resources like the aids in class and the P.E leaders who always do an amazing job,” Petersen said.

Along with making many friends and memories, the Special Education Program here at DGS has motivated many students to use their experiences to create their own career path.

“Coming into DGS I knew I wanted to go into education, but I didn’t know what type and once I found special education and something that I really enjoyed. It actually has made me consider becoming a special education teacher, so I believe the experiences I have had really helped me build a path of what I want to do in the future,” Skibbe said.

O’Leary and her experiences working with special education students at DGS has pushed her to make a living out of a coincidental placement into a P.E leading class first period.

“I got the opportunity to work with people who are not able to function like I can and I am grateful for that opportunity because its made me a better person overall. That’s what I think I am going to miss the most about South: these special education students,” O’Leary said. “I am hoping I will be able to keep in touch with them after I graduate because they are what I am going to remember most about this school. I am to remember working with them and the smile they can put on my face and how quickly they can change my mood from bad to good in less than a second. I fell in love with it and now I am going to go to school next year to study special education to be a special ed teacher.”

Petersen encourages anyone, teachers or students, to get involved with any special education program because of its unique nature and what it has to offer as a career.

“I would encourage anyone to get involved. Even in today’s world there is a shortage of special education teachers and mostly male special education teachers. But male or female, getting into special education is awesome because every day is different,” Peterson said. “If you get a job behind the desk or behind a computer I feel like it can get repetitive. I have never woken up and thought, ‘shoot I don’t feel like going to school today.’ I have never regretted once my job choice, and that is a pretty good feeling.”

Lahey believes that overall her character has developed by working with the kids and becoming more accepting and understanding of people’s stories.

“It changes me every day and I learn so much from them so I feel like being a special education teacher has made me a better person. Sometimes people are like, ‘oh you’re such a saint for working with kids with disabilities,’ but I don’t see it that way. I see it that I am a better person because I am learning to be more accepting of other people and their abilities and lack of abilities. I have learned that everyone has a story and with our students you can see their backstory because of how they act and look but you meet a general education student and you don’t necessarily know their backstory. So it really has made me more aware and made more of a accepting person.”

Although the Special Education Program is a small part of the DGS family, it will continue to have a huge impact on how we as a community see people and treat people in our day-to-day experiences.