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Thursday, June 30, 2016

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Graduate student co-founds school for ‘twice-exceptional’ students


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Jeanette Salinas and Jennifer Brown practice non-traditional methods at the special education school they founded this past September to help twice-exceptional students with their social and emotional skills. | Photo by Justin Cross \ The Cougar.

Among the objects within the yellow plastic toolbox found in the small classroom at the Journey School of Houston are a homemade kaleidoscope, pinwheel and stress ball.

To most people, these are just random toys but to the Journey School students, they are imperative to their ability to just get through the day.

“The kaleidoscope is for focus, the pinwheel for breathing and the stress ball is for anger,” Jeanette Salinas, doctorate student and co-founder of the Journey School said.

Salinas uses the toolbox and the objects inside to help her students cope with their emotional and social skills. After working more than a decade in education, Salinas founded the Journey School of Houston, a non-profit special education school for children in fifth to eighth grade.

The Journey School is not just a special education school, though — it’s one of a kind in that it caters to the needs of “twice-exceptional students,” a term educators use to describe students that are both gifted and talented but also emotionally and socially limited.

These students have some sort of secondary diagnosis like ADHD, anxiety, or even a trauma like divorce or adoption, that interferes with their learning in school.

“With public school education, there are special education programs that tell teachers how to teach certain students…but there’s nothing that brings it all together when you have a student that has gifts and talents but also has a diagnosis that interferes with their education,” Salinas said.

Twice-exceptional students are an at-risk population. According to the Texas Education Agency, there are approximately 3 million gifted students served in the K-12 U.S. school system and 6 million 6 to 21-year-old students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Of those students served under IDEA, an estimated six percent are gifted and could be identified as twice-exceptional, according to the National Educational Association.  Of the 128,000 students served in Houston special programs, an estimated two to five percent of those are unidentified as twice-exceptional.

“…there are millions of students not being served,” Salinas said.

“These students are at risk of dropping out of school, failing classes, ending up with more severe mental illnesses because they just continue (to) internalize these failures they have throughout their school life.”

The Journey School focuses on meeting the needs of the “whole child.” According to Salinas, the needs of the whole child include not just academic needs but also social and emotional needs. The school follows a curriculum that teaches students coping methods and does not focus on punishment.

“A typical mindset for most teachers in the classroom is that you’re thinking about achievement in an academic sense,” Salinas said. “But we are thinking of achievement in a social sense and emotional sense, and trying to strive to help children bring together behaviors, thoughts and feelings and help them to put words to what they’re experiencing.”

The Journey School is private with tuition is set at $25,000. Salinas said the school strives to offer scholarship opportunities for students, and through a GoFundMe account has previously raised $30,000 for prospective students.

Thanks to community involvement and outreach, Salinas was able to open the school this September.

“We’ve had so much support, especially in the Heights community, that has allowed us to get a really good jump start to building what I think will be a really long lasting future for these kid,” Salinas said.

The school serves only four students, but Salinas said she hopes to steadily increase that number to 10 or 15 students, an ideal number that will allow her and other teachers to adequately connect with students.

Students are deemed twice exceptional based off assessments, standardized testing, IQ scores, report cards and an observation period.

“It’s really difficult to assess a child and say ‘OK, this is exactly what is happening and this is what we need to do,'” Salinas said. “With children, if you have a child that has an IQ of 150 and has anxiety, I can’t necessarily tell you ‘Here’s the curriculum and here is how you’re going to handle this student,’ because it looks different in every child.”

The Journey School is different in that children are given individualized attention and build relationships with teachers that help them advance academically, socially and emotionally.

The curriculum relies on community outreach and cross-age training where younger children are placed with older children. The older child acts as a model for the younger one, with the method benefitting both children.

Another key aspect of the school are the licensed clinicians that provide additional one-on-one support for the students and their families. Each week, the clinicians meet with the families to discuss a child’s progress and methods to help develop their social skills.

Adriana Crane is one of the school’s family consultants and helps provide psychoeducational sessions where parents can better understand the emotional development of their child.

“The family consultant is essential to a therapeutic school because we close the gap between home and school,” Crane said.

Crane said gaining the students’ trust is essential to making progress with them.

“Listening to them, thoughtfully observing them and withholding criticisms and judgments about their behaviors is key to gaining their trust,” Crane said.  “We see their behaviors as their way of communicating very important thoughts and feelings that simply don’t have words yet.”

Co-founder and clinical coordinator Jennifer Brown said one the biggest misconceptions about these students is that they are often labeled as behavioral problems, and this label impedes their ability to succeed in school and life.

“Once they are given that label, it’s hard for anyone looking at that child to let go of that,” Brown said. “Our students definitely need a lot more support but they are not bad for that. They just need to learn and not everyone learns the same way.”

Salinas said after so many years in education she has personally seen the wrong approach used for these types of students.

“I’ve had experiences in public school settings before where parents were told by teachers to just take their kids home and beat them and they would be okay, but that’s not what these kids need,” Salinas said. “They really just need the language of what they are feeling. We are constantly talking them through emotions and feelings and social situations.”

This approach reflects one of the school’s ultimate goals: to be a shame free place that does not rely on punishment.

“They don’t respond to punishment well because they internalize that. It’s basically a difference between guilt and shame,” Brown said. “Guilt is’ I’ve done something bad, I need to fix it’ and shame is ‘I’ve done something  bad, I am bad.’”

Salinas said her time at UH has been instrumental to founding the Journey School and the approach it follows.

“For me, community is important and UH has that service environment. Any time I’ve talked to anybody — professors or fellow students about either what they’re doing or what I’m doing, it’s always met with support,” Salinas said.

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Jeanette Salinas is currently working on her doctorate at UH and said the university has helped her with her efforts to found the Journey School. | Photo by Justin Cross \ The Cougar.

Salinas said she hopes her school and its one of a kind approach will eventually become a learning model for others to gain the skills to be able to help students that fit this demographic, adding that she would like to increase community involvement by working toward recruiting student teachers from UH.

“We are a small group of people, we are a small school, so there’s only so much we can do to impact the greater good,” Salinas said. “But if we can have a program through UH or another university we are able to help people that are going into classrooms to develop those skills, that’s going to really help impact more populations of students.”

With high hopes for the future, Salinas said she is ready for the days to come and cannot wait to expand her reach.

“When I got into this environment where you’re not only meeting the academic needs but also the social and emotional needs of a child, you’re there to completely wrap yourself around that child — I couldn’t say no to that. It has really opened my mind as an educator and as a person.”

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