Schools are responsible for setting every student up for success, even if they don’t always fit the average mold. This includes students with disabilities, and, with the number of physically or mentally disabled children attending secondary and post-secondary schooling expected to increase, schools are doing all that they can to ensure these students are supported.

Special education programs are now a national norm, and each year they seem to be progressing more and more with their ability to accommodate disabled children in the classroom. The same can be said about Ahwatukee’s local school districts, both Kyrene School District and Tempe Union High School District offer comprehensive support for a broad range of special needs students and are always looking for ways to improve.

At Desert Vista, Special Education Life Skills teacher Veronica Marquez says that their goal in the special education department is to prepare students for life after high school and in the work force.

“We always try to think outside of the box,” said Marquez. “We’re always looking for new ways to engage (our students).”

Like many schools, Desert Vista blends its special education curriculum with opportunities for students to choose regular elective classes based on their abilities and interests. Marquez says that this helps the students foster their hobbies with classes like photography, food science, computer graphic and design, and art.

Marquez and the other teachers in the DV Special Education Department also try to encourage healthy friendships and social skills, which play a large role in most high-schoolers’ lives.

“We try to encourage them to go to the football games and get involved,” Marquez said.

But it’s not just the teachers that help these students get the most out of high school; it’s their peers as well. Thunder Buddies, a club that resembles the national Best Buddies club, pairs a special needs student with other students from the school.

“Our mission is basically to provide special needs kids with as normal a high school experience as possible,” said Thunder Buddies president Mia Vollaro. “We host get-togethers, pot-lucks, an annual fundraiser at Yoasis, a zoo trip, and a Thunder Buddies prom.”

The club allows both the special education students and their buddies to build friendships they might not have otherwise, and gives the students a healthy sense of group-support. At Desert Vista, the club has grown to more than 70 members at the end of each year, with hopes to continue growing.

Although the special education program at Desert Vista has been hugely successful, Marquez (who is also a sponsor of the Thunder Buddies club) and the other teachers in the department are always looking for ways to improve.

“I’d like to see more programs and more opportunities for getting our students prepared for after high school,” Marquez said. “It’s hard with the budget cuts; some of (those programs) have been taken away.”

Still, Marquez and Vollaro are confident and excited for the upcoming school year and are looking forward to continuing to support the needs of the special education students in the community.

• Ahwatukee Foothills resident Mitchell Hammer is a senior at Desert Vista High School. He is interning this summer for the Ahwatukee Foothills News.

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