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College Park teacher, students make TAFE competition easier for special needs students

September 24, 2018

Peyton Eisinger, a senior at The Woodlands - College Park High School, said she never thought she’d enter a project at a Texas Association of Future Educators competition.

The club, also known as TAFE, normally has more than 200 chapters state-wide. Students who want to be teachers can get involved to gain practice in both creating and teaching educational materials and lesson plans, as well as give speeches on why they want to be educators.

The club hosts regional, state and national competitions each year for students who create these projects.

Eisinger is a special education student who has been involved in the club since she was a freshman, but said she has had trouble making it to the competition in years past. This year, Eisinger is entering two projects thanks to a new rubric that levels the playing field for students with cognitive disabilities and makes it easier for them to compete.

A rubric is a computational tool that lists the criteria used for competition judges to evaluate and score student projects.

Connie Thornell, who teaches education and training courses at College Park, is also the school’s chapter adviser. She spearheaded the creation of the new rubric, called the Special Education Division.

“Some of our special needs kids would drop out before they went to the competition because they’d see the other students’ projects and panic about it. Sadly, with the competitive nature of TAFE, it would have been difficult for them to compete,” Thornell said.

Thornell and three students developed the rubric during the 2017-18 school year and presented it to the organization’s board of directors in February, who then approved it over the summer. The new rubric is designed to reflect a regular project’s rubric, but with some modifications that recognize that the special needs students do the best they can at their individual levels.

Such modifications include allowing a representative supporting the student while judges ask questions in a competition and lowering the point values for project design and creativity, therefore accommodating the struggles a special needs student might face — speaking up in front of strangers, for example.

“Most every classroom is heterogeneously grouped. We have students of all levels and abilities, so for them to have a club with a portion that seemed exclusive is where we didn’t feel comfortable,” Thornell said.

Abby Acompanado, who was a senior last year at College Park and is now a freshman at Sam Houston State University, is one of the students who helped Thornell develop the modified rubric.

“We realized that not having a division for special education kids to compete wasn’t really fair. It was important for us that special needs students wanted to be a part of this and have that sense of belonging,” Acompanado said.

Acompanado and two of her classmates presented the proposal to the board of directors, a panel that included state Director Donita Garza.

Garza said the board had been wanting to create something like the new rubric, but hadn’t done so yet.

“I jumped all over it; it’s something we need to have. It empowers (special needs students) to feel like they are successful and that they can do anything. It gives them the feelings of achievement and success,” Garza said.

There are two completed modified rubrics as of now: one for a bulletin board project and the other for a creative teaching materials project. Garza said she hopes to continue to add modified rubrics for other projects in the competition.

Additionally, if the implementation succeeds at the state level, there is a possibility for the special needs rubrics to be used at the national competition level.

For now, club vice president and senior Ashton Waguespack, with help from two other students, Lauren Villarreal and Victoria Arp, are assisting Eisinger in creating her projects.

One project is a bulletin board where students use colored bells to play music, and the other is a set of teaching materials that uses emojis to help students identify and learn emotions.

Waguespack has taken on this project as part of a leadership initiative. She’s also helping to create videos of the progress to share with schools who wish to use the new rubric in the future.

Eisinger will be one of the first students to utilize the new modified rubric when she enters her projects at the regional competition this November.

jane.stueckemann@chron.com

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