Education majors work with students with disabilities

December 1, 2015
Students at Willowglen Academy

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Ten University of Wisconsin-Platteville undergraduate and graduate students interested in special education recently engaged in a hands-on learning experience at Willowglen Academy in Freeport, Ill. The academy is a residential placement facility for students with severe and/or multiple disabilities, especially those who fall on the autism disorder spectrum.

The UW-Platteville students are enrolled in the Strategies for Effective Inclusion course taught by Dr. Rea Kirk, professor of special education at UW-Platteville.

The purpose of the trip was to expose UW-Platteville teacher candidates to students with severe and multiple disabilities so they could learn about their characteristics and communication systems as well as learn about behavior management techniques.

Prior to the trip, the principal of Willowglen Academy, Neal Trainor, came to UW-Platteville to explain to the class the types of disabilities and characteristics the students at the academy have, why a restrictive environment is needed and what a typical day at the academy is like.

In early November, when the students visited the academy, they toured one of the group homes/residences, observed effective behavior management techniques and communication systems used with non-verbal students and learned what teaching in a residential facility entails. “All of these activities increased the students’ knowledge and pedagogical skills of curricular and technological activities for students with severe and/or multiple disabilities,” said Kirk.

Kirk said the project is unique because most of the students at the academy have been diagnosed as being on the autism disorder spectrum. She said the students come from all over Illinois and most are not able to live at home or in their home communities because of behavioral and other challenges.

“This is a population the teacher candidates at UW-Platteville do not have the opportunity to see or work with in their education courses and experiences,” said Kirk. “This learning experience opened up their world and will likely enhance their employment opportunities. The staff members talked about how much fun it was to work at Willowglen – they obviously love their clients. The great family atmosphere they have created at the academy was beautiful to observe.”

Kirk said most of her students had never thought about working with students with severe special needs and most of them imagined it would be a tough, stressful job. “That is not the impression we left with,” said Kirk. “The laughter and joy and camaraderie we observed – and the love that emanated – made it a very worthwhile experience.” 

“The partnership with UW-Platteville enables the students pursuing a career in education to see a program that gives hope, safety, trust and opportunity to students with disabilities,” said Trainor. “They see a school like no other they will ever see in their career and how the students become successful and how, with unique teaching, gets these student to their full potential.”

Students said they benefited personally and/or professionally from the experience.

“I really learned what it means to love your students as your own,” said Amanda Mueller, a senior early childhood education major from Wheaton, Ill. “The love and dedication shown for the students is what I will strive to have in my classroom.”

“If the child does not learn the way you are teaching, you need to teach the way the child is learning,” said Lena Thompson, a senior early childhood education major from Milwaukee, Wis. “I learned a lot from the trip; I learned to have patience.”

“Visiting Willowglen was really eye-opening and a wonderful experience,” said Danyella Ortiz, a senior elementary eduation major from Monroe, Wis. “We all know that teachers want the best for their students and eventually look at their students as their ‘babies’ for the next nine months. When observing in the classrooms at Willowglen, you witness teachers who really care and love their students and consider them their ‘babies’ for more than nine months. There is a whole new level of compassion the moment you walk into Willowglen.”

“It was very eye-opening for me to see how much the staff love their jobs,” said Katie Pape, a senior early childhood education major from Sherill, Iowa. “Even the students were very interested in getting to know us. It’s amazing how well the students succeed even after a few months of being part of the school. This trip was definitely worth going on. I will grow from this experience by knowing this is the field I want to work in, in the future.”

Trainor will come back to campus and meet informally with students who may wish to pursue this type of setting for their careers. 

The hands-on, experiential learning experience at Willowglen Academy was made possible with the support of the Pioneer Academic Center for Community Engagement, a UW-Platteville initiative and funding source for campus-wide coordination, integration and leadership of community-based scholarship of engagement projects and internships that involve students, faculty, staff and community partners.

As UW-Platteville pursues its vision of being recognized as the leading student-focused university for its success in achieving excellence, creating opportunities and empowering each individual, it is guided by four strategic planning priorities. The experience at Willowglen Academy aligns with two of the priorities, including providing an outstanding education and fostering a community of achievement and respect.

Written by: Laurie Hamer, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191,


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UIC: Strategic Plan in Action

Strategic Plan in Action

The University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s Strategic Plan is centered around the following priorities:

  • Provide an outstanding education
  • Foster a community of achievement and respect
  • Control our own destiny
  • Enrich the tri-state region

Read more about how the university is executing this plan, as well as find examples of its success on the strategic plan website.

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