Rose Morreale calls special education teacher Ashli Skura Dreher the "miracle worker" who unlocked her son's mind. Vincent, 20, has autism.
Jennie Welder's daughter, Laura, has Down syndrome. "They told me my daughter would never learn to read, tell time or count money," she says. "Then we met Ashli."
Laura, now 26 and a former student of Dreher's, is currently within the supportive environment of a day habilitation program in Niagara Falls and volunteers for Meals on Wheels and at senior citizen centers.
"All students will learn if we hold the target steady enough and long enough for them to strive toward," says Dreher, the 2014 New York State Teacher of the Year. "I'm proof that is true."
Dreher is blind in one eye. Her lack of depth perception impacted her hand-eye coordination and motor skills as a child. She was told she would never learn to ride a bike or swim.
Dreher credits the special services she received in public school — adaptive physical education, physical therapy and occupational therapy along with the personalized motivation from her elementary adaptive PE teacher — as the forces that allowed her to overcome the early prognosis, and to join the high school swim team and become a three-sport athlete in college.
"Public education really shaped me and made me the teacher I am today," says Dreher, a member of Lewiston-Porter United Teachers.
Dreher's self-assigned mission is to dispel the myth of "perceived competence." She understands the importance of looking beyond a diagnosis and focusing on the individual as a way to reach and inspire her students.
"Ashli makes sure everyone is engaged all the time," Rose Morreale says.
Nine students, ages 14-21, with moderate intellectual and developmental disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy work at preschool to perhaps fifth-grade academic levels in Dreher's 8:1:1 life skills classroom at Lewiston-Porter Senior High School in Youngstown.
The curriculum combines academics and daily living activities to ensure students "have the skills they need when they age-out of the program at 21 and are out in a supported employment or competitive employment role in the community," Dreher says.
The fast-paced classroom is full of adaptive technology and the team of teacher and teacher aides uses many different educational methods to engage students in life skills — music, videos, choral response and repetition.
"I'm fortunate to have three wonderful teacher aides who assist me with refocusing and redirecting, and help when I differentiate instruction," says Dreher.
"Ashli has an affinity for knowing who works well with a particular student," says teacher aide Darcy Licht. "She validates our ideas and incorporates them."
Dreher's magic seems to be in her relentless pursuit of the information she needs to create each student's learning blueprint. She finds each student's individual motivator, learning style, likes and dislikes, and incorporates them into her curriculum and into each student learning objective.
"Today we're making butter cakes for our special dinner for your families tonight," Dreher tells her students. "Are you ready to sing, Vincent? Are you ready, Madison?"
Dreher starts the video and leads her class in a short sing-along to "We're cooking" from Playhouse Disney. She uses a pointer to follow each word of the lyrics on a poster.
Next the students read and follow recipes, gather ingredients and check off lists. They bake cakes, peel potatoes, and prepare stuffing and casseroles.
A National Board Certified Teacher who is also a dissertation level doctoral student, Dreher considers herself a lifelong learner and believes continuing professional development is one of the best ways to provide the best educational experience for New York's public school students.
NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira calls Dreher a wonderful ambassador.
"Ashli exemplifies the dedication of our members to students and their families," Neira says. "She embodies the principles of excellence in our profession."
Lewiston-Porter UT President Kevin Jaruszewski was Dreher's student teacher in 2002. "She was phenomenal," he says. "She taught me that you need to be organized and have structure right from the get-go. All of those things are necessary to make students successful."
At dismissal time, Dreher and several teacher aides check on the dinner's progress and set out decorations. Two turkeys are cooking in roasters. Cakes are cooling on the counter and several student-prepared side dishes are in the oven.
In just a few hours, the students and dozens of their family members will arrive for one of four student-hosted family dinners each year.
The dinners provide a performance-based assessment of the skills students learn in school and help parents stay connected to the educational process.
As the sun begins to set, families fill the classroom with hugs, laughter and a bouquet of flowers. Guests include several former students and their parents and siblings. (Although students age out of her classroom at 21, Dreher keeps in contact with them long after that.)
Current students receive recognition awards this night. Former students continue to feel the warmth of Dreher's teaching and practice important life skills beyond enjoying turkey dinner in their old classroom.
"We know that some students are dealt rickety ladders that pose barriers to academic success," Dreher says. "And despite enormous challenges, hundreds of thousands of teachers in New York state just like me work tirelessly to ensure that we steady each child's climb up even the most rickety ladder."
DID YOU KNOW
Ashli Skura Dreher, 2014 New York State Teacher of the Year, shared best practices on "Functional literacy in a life skills curriculum" in the spring 2010 edition of Educator's Voice, NYSUT's professional journal that highlights research-based strategies that make a difference in student achievement. Visit www.nysut.org/edvoice3.