A journey toward learning

Autism: Millersville Elementary's principal will travel to England as a Fulbright Scholar to glean more ideas for special education.

Education Beat

News from Anne Arundel County schools and colleges

July 10, 2005|By Naomi Smoot-Kimble | Naomi Smoot-Kimble,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Diana Strohecker knew she was witnessing a milestone.

Strohecker, principal of Millersville Elementary School, had known the young autistic boy for nearly three years. During that time, he had never asked her for anything and rarely made eye contact with her, she said.

But that day, he stood with a carrot in his hand and his arms stretched around a horse's neck. It wasn't long before he spoke to her, she remembered with chills of delight.

"Up, Dr. Strohecker, up," she recalled him saying.

The boy's success story was not the first one that the veteran administrator had witnessed. She's hoping it won't be the last.

Strohecker is on a continuous search for ways to improve the special education program at her school. Next spring, that quest will take her to Hampshire, England, where, as part of the Fulbright Scholars program, she will examine another administrator's approach to educating autistic students.

Strohecker is one of 22 school administrators from across America who was selected to take part in the Fulbright program. Each will be paired with another administrator from overseas, she said. The partners will then travel to each other's schools to study the techniques they are using for various programs.


For Strohecker, the trip is a way to answer questions she has about Millersville Elementary School's autism program. There are differences between her school and her partner's that she would like to explore, she said.

The school she will visit in England has year-round instruction, and teachers work in tight collaboration with local health care providers, she said. She wants to see what this could mean for her own students.

Do autistic children perform better without a 72-day summer vacation? And how does the close pairing of mental health professionals and teachers benefit the school? But the principal won't be the only one getting answers. Her school has its own lessons to offer.

The program at Millersville Elementary School takes a new approach to special education and is based on the idea that all students can succeed in a general-education setting, Strohecker said. She and her staff have made inclusion in the general-education classroom their goal for each of the school's 365 students.

"It's a philosophy, and a way of life," she said of their approach.

Instead of being slowly introduced into the general population of students, autistic children at Millersville are fully immersed in regular classes, she said. Students participate in the same curriculum, using special tools and aides to help them succeed.

The benefits of the program are "unbelievable," Strohecker said, though it does require extra effort.


Special education teachers and general educators have to work hand-in-hand with one another. Planning sessions are done as a team, and teachers must be willing to make necessary accommodations, she said.

"For someone who doesn't lead that life, it sounds like a lot of extra work," she said.

The result, though, is a group of children who are pushed to new educational heights. She believes that her students, including the boy who recently asked her for a ride on the horse, learn things they might have missed out on if inclusion had not been used.

"It really stretches them beyond their fingertips," she said.

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