Special education students learn vocational skills by renovating the courtyard

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Besides hands-on gardening skills, teamwork is a fundamental lesson gauged from the renovation, as students work together to plant trees, dig holes, and otherwise beautify the courtyard.

Throughout this past year, everyone has felt cooped-up due to the pandemic. The students in the low incidence program have especially been feeling restricted and eager to get back to school and work with their classmates. Over the past couple of months, students in special education have been working together to renovate the school courtyard to be more welcoming for other  students and staff, while learning life skills through gardening and landscaping. 

The students described the work they did in the courtyard: pulling weeds, digging holes to plant, and spreading mulch over the courtyard. 

Senior Elaine Yepez describes how she made the courtyard better. She said she dug out and pulled weeds. “I’m a big strong girl!” exclaimed Yepez. 

Special Education teacher, Theresa Taddeo, helped with planting the vegetables in the raised flower bed. After planting vegetables such as radishes, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, jalapenos, and peas, Senior Ariana Orellana helped water the plants, which is her favorite thing to do in the garden in the courtyard. Sophomore Yisak Tariku painted a birdhouse to hang in the courtyard. 

“It’s nice out there! It’s nice to relax and enjoy the fresh air,” said Tariku.

Guest speakers showed the students how to use tools to garden and even demonstrated power equipment like weed-wackers and leaf blowers from a distance. Some of the demonstrators warned the students of poison ivy. Senior John Szczepanik showed off the gloves he wears to protect his hands while in the garden. He said everyone who worked in the courtyard had their own set of gloves. 

Students enrolled in classes like Work Awareness and Transition, also known as WAT, Education for Employment, and Life Skills work on outdoor job sites every year to learn vocational skills. This year, Rebecca Cousins, the Employment and Transition Representative who supervised and planned the project, was limited to the school grounds and decided to have the students renovate the courtyard. 

The purpose of this project is to help educate the students with intellectual disabilities through hands-on activities like gardening in the courtyard. Activities like this are most beneficial for this population because they learn best by doing things with their hands. 

Cousins credits donations of gardening supplies, assistance from staff and family members, guest speakers, a work-based learning grant from the Foundation for Fairfax County, and a 20% discount from Home Depot for the success. One of the guest speakers was Cousin’s brother, who showed the students how to use different gardening tools. He has down syndrome and has worked in supported employment and lawn care for over 25 years.

Besides hands-on gardening skills, teamwork is a fundamental lesson gauged from the renovation, as students work together to plant trees, dig holes, and otherwise beautify the courtyard.