February 16, 2024

Shoreham-Wading River RISE program a slam dunk

Author: Molly Belmont
Source:  NYSUT Communications
shoreham wading river
Caption: This year, Shoreham-Wading River Senior High School's unified basketball team made the news after student Andrew Brennan, who has limited use of his limbs, worked with educators and student mentors to achieve his dream and finally score a basket. “I was crying. His peer mentors were crying. Matt was losing his mind, jumping up and down. Andrew’s mom was crying. We were just so happy for him,” said special education teacher Caitlin Gould. Photo provided.

Special education teacher Caitlin Gould said she’s tired of people feeling sorry for her and her students. “When someone tells me, ‘Your job is so hard,’ I’m like ‘You have no idea,’” Gould said. “The truth is I feel so lucky. I can’t believe this is my job and that I get to come to this school every day and work with these kids. It is just so rewarding.”

Gould teaches at Shoreham-Wading River Senior High School. She and Matthew Millheiser lead RISE, a fully adaptive program at the Shoreham Wading River Senior High School designed to help students with severe disabilities reach independence through structured experiences.

“Our students face struggles every day of their life, more than we as teachers could ever understand,” said Millheiser. RISE students deal with physical limitations, communications issues, chronic health problems, and cognitive deficits. “The world, especially high school, can be a difficult place for them.”

Together, Gould and Millheiser, who are both members of the Shoreham-Wading River Teachers Association, help their students master the practical skills they need to succeed in the real world and find joy there.

“Overall, most outsiders feel bad for our students, focusing on all the things they can’t do,” Millheiser said. “Our program strives to show our students and others what they can do, which is a lot more than they think they can.”

“Every morning, first period, all the students have a job,” said Gould. Some work in the school store, selling drinks and handling inventory, she said. Other students run the school’s coffee cart, and still others are charged with running the school’s meal delivery program.

Once a week, students 16 and older are transported in the program’s van to off-site jobs. “We see that they get placed in a job in the community in a field they are interested in,” said Caitlin. “We have one student who works at a clothing boutique that she loves. We have another student who works at the Suffolk Theatre, and then because he works with us, they also hired him on the weekends.”

Determined to open more doors for their students, Gould and Millheiser created an innovative peer mentoring program eight years ago that gives their students access to co-taught electives like theater, music, art and Spanish. The program invites students from the mainstream population to join them and serve as mentors.

The mentoring component is beneficial for everyone, giving students with special needs the support they need to participate, and giving students from the general education population the opportunity to be part of something transformative.

Theater was the first elective they tried with the peer mentor model, and it taught everyone something valuable, said Mary Hygom, theater teacher and president of the Shoreham-Wading River TA. “Never underestimate what kids are able to do. They will surprise you. Keep expectations high, and don’t pigeonhole students.”

The student mentors have quickly become fixtures in the RISE classroom, with many stopping in between classes, popping in during study hall, and showing up for special events.

“I never worry about my kids in the hallways, and it’s because of these peer mentoring classes. We have so many kids who are now immersed in our classroom, and they generate true friendships here,” said Gould. That enthusiasm spills over into extracurricular activities like unified basketball, which includes both special education and mainstream students.

Gould said seeing their team take the court would make any school jealous. “When we roll up to the school, we have like 40 kids on our team,” Gould said. “We don’t have to ask anyone to join, they all just want to do it because they are already friends with our kids.”

This year, their unified basketball team made the news after Shoreham-Wading River student Andrew Brennan, who has limited use of his limbs, achieved his dream and finally scored a basket. “I was crying. His peer mentors were crying. Matt was losing his mind, jumping up and down. Andrew’s mom was crying. We were just so happy for him,” Gould said.

“When our students realize their own potential and begin to take charge of challenging situations, it is the best feeling as a teacher,” said Millheiser. “It validates all the hard work and reflection we do.”