“I can tell the difference”


Students in Jessica Wess’ class at Edison Elementary School returned from lunch for an indoor recess on a rainy afternoon. The room, on the second floor of the Eastside School, presents the traditional painting, but also cleverly partitioned spaces where children can play or seek a little solitude. There are also iPads, tablets, and laptops in the bedroom. Every child – there are eight in this class from Kindergarten to Grade 3 – was looking for something different. What they haven’t done is play together.

This classroom is geared towards autistic students and is comprised of students from Mercyhurst University in a one-of-a-kind program in the state and features a teacher / student ratio of eight students for six adults, including Wess, who is completing his second year of teaching students. Wess will be graduating this month with a double major in Early Years and Special Education with a minor in Applied Behavior Analysis. The Buffalo native will return to her New York roots in that city’s classrooms as part of the Teach For America program, while she will also attend Canisius College for her masters.

“I chose Mercyhurst because of the education,” Wess said during a lunch break before the students returned to the room. “I could go into class in the first year. She also got a college scholarship for field hockey, a sport she played (goaltending) for all four years.

“I knew I loved children,” she said. “You can make such a difference with these kids. The more you believe in them, the more money you will make.”

Wess credits Susan Johnson as a “great” teacher at Mercyhurst University, for introducing her to special education. This is her second year in the Edison class, and she has seen the difference that the attention of those early years can make. Children vary in the severity of their interpersonal skills and verbal communication. A couple spends much of their day in regular classrooms and will be fully integrated with other students over the next school year. Others spend all of their academic time with this group of teachers, which includes graduate students from Mercyhurst and the supervision of a university professor.

Mercyhurst has a contract with the City of Erie School District to provide autism services and behavioral training throughout the district. The Autism Support Initiative, hosted at Edison, is made up of certified teachers who are graduate students pursuing their Masters in Special Education with a concentration in Applied Behavior Analysis. “The classroom is strongly data / results oriented and uses only evidence-based practices,” explained Thomas Kitchen, assistant professor of special education at Mercyhurst and director of the Autism Support Initiative. “I designed and ran the program, and I have all clinical oversight. The school district has ultimate oversight, and we report to them. It’s the only type of this program in the state that I know of. . He was extremely successful. “

Edison’s classroom reinforced Wess’ decision to focus on special education children in downtown schools, where she believes she can make a big difference in their lives. After graduating from Mercyhurst, she joined Teach For America, which only accepted 15% of the 60,000 applicants. She hopes to get her graduate degree in special education, but she also plans to study sign language to pursue deaf education.

Teach For America began in 1989 as a master thesis at Princeton University. At the time, the educational outcomes of low-income children had not changed for a century, and school districts faced a national teacher shortage. “Public schools, decades after desegregation, have remained an area of ​​inequity, unable to compensate for the long-term effects of poverty, racism and other deep-rooted injustices,” according to the TFA website.

Since its inception in 1990, TFA has reached over 600,000 students in 50 regions and has over 35,000 former teachers. TFA will pay part of Wess’s tuition.

“I wanted to start in a city,” Wess said, explaining that as a young woman with a lot of energy, she “can make a difference in the lives of children.”

It’s not an easy career, noted Wess and his comrades. Jobs can be hard to find. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for kindergarten and elementary school teachers is growing at a roughly average rate, with around 188,400 new jobs expected to be created by 2022. The median average salary is around $ 53,000 with a bachelor’s degree. There are a total of approximately 1.5 million jobs in this category. Special education is growing more slowly, with just 442,800 special education jobs in the United States. Growth is expected to be just 6% (or less than average) through 2022. The median salary in this field is $ 55,000.

“Have fun with it” is his advice to anyone considering a career in education. “If you like what you are doing, the kids will know it and they will respond to you as well,” she said.

The children in her class do. She is patient, kind and firm. For a student who likes to throw things out the window, she interrupts our interview to bundle her up and go out to pick up her yellow ball. He comes back, gets a 25 second break, then gets back into his groove, checking the electronics. A student voluntarily partitions himself in a corner of the room to play with the sock (he likes the touch). Another is engaged in a computer game.

There is a calm order, smiles from those who run them and a general sense of accomplishment in this room. “I love what I do and couldn’t imagine being in any other profession,” Wess said.


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