Recognizing the Work of Special Education Teachers Beyond SAAW


Olivia Columbel

In this Functional Math class, special abilities students are able to independently work with the help of their teacher Ms. Fida Sowwan-Khabbaz.

Dominion’s Special Education department is composed of 30 teachers and teachers assistants that are actively planning, bonding, and communicating. They spend lots of time adjusting ideas and building relationships in attempts to positively impact their students. Now, as Special Abilities Awareness Week (SAAW) has passed, giving students and faculty an opportunity to grow their understanding about special abilities, it is just due time to honor the large group that made that week possible— the special education teachers. 

Chair of the Special Education Department, David Kroeze shared about the department’s hope, as he said,  “Our goal here at Dominion is to make sure that regardless of a student’s abilities on the surface, we’re not going to allow instruction, or the way we do instruction, hold them back. We want every single student to have the opportunity to meet their potential.”

As the chair of the department, Kroeze communicates with students’ families, teachers, teachers assistants, and helps in the special abilities classrooms. With such a large role in the department, he is able to see not only how the teachers and students interact but how those interactions are impacting the students. 

The department devotes a large portion of their energy towards developing relationships with the students within the program as they believe it results in a positive impact. “It’s going to come down to two different broad categories. I think the first one is relational. I think our special education team here at Dominion is so good at building relationships with students,” Kroeze said. “The other one is going to be in the education world. We call it differentiating instruction, so we change it based on the students. Our team is really good at thinking through…different ways to learn missing content and let them kind of have some individuality to their education.”

Dominion has 184 special abilities students, 18 special education teachers, and 12 special education teachers assistants. Within that group there is a smaller program called the LIFE program, which stands for “Learning Independence through Functional Education.” The LIFE program is made up of four teachers and 22 students. In the program, the students work individually to plan their career plan and learn functional life skills. They participate in Community Independence Instruction (CII), which gives them the opportunity to go out into the community and volunteer at LINK Food Bank at Christ the Redeemer Church, Backpack Buddies at Galilee Church, Women Giving Back, and Burlington Coat Factory.  

“The students are volunteering in order to learn the skills, so that eventually they may be placed in a site that’s similar to that where they will actually work,” said Leslie Chandler, one of the LIFE Program Teachers. 

Special ability student Prinscilla working with  Ms. Coupet.
(Olivia Columbel)

The special abilities teachers have created ways for their students to be more included in the community through programs such as Dominion’s peer mentoring program. In this mentoring program, a small group of students are each buddied up with a special ability student, and together they are able to do activities they want to do, whether it is training for a job by practicing skills, basic tutoring, or just hanging out.

“Some of our peer mentors will give up their time during their study hall to come into one of our classes to work one on one with students, whether it be in math, independent living, or reading. We also have some peer mentors that will work maybe in an elective class that they’re currently taking,” Sheila Traenkle, Dominion’s transition teacher, said.

Most high schools are assigned a transition teacher who works with students with special abilities to help them plan for their future and life after high school. Transition teachers also work with the students’ teacher and parents, providing them with resources for things such as applications for college accommodations, supported employment and ways to continue to move towards professional goals. Traenkle also manages peer mentoring and has a large role in the department’s communication. 

Students can connect with the special ability students through the BFF Club which meets once a month and has get togethers as a way for the special ability students to meet and form bonds with students outside of their class. Before Thanksgiving break, they had their Thanksgiving party where they wrote cards to people they are thankful for, played “Just Dance”, and hung out. 

Traenkle helped sign up one of her students in the LIFE program, Gabe Quinones, for a project called “I’m Determined,” which focuses on guiding youth in their skills and career planning. The three day event was hosted over the summer at James Madison University. “I’m Determined” hosts 50 students from Virginia, and Quinones was the only student from Loudoun County Public Schools selected to participate. 

“Last year in the summer I went to ‘I’m Determined’ at JMU. Traenkle signed up with me for that. That’s how I [could be] a youth leader and fly all the way to Texas,” said Quinones about how he could gain the opportunity to be a youth leader..