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At San Marcos High, Student Aides Make Fresh Connection with Those with Special Needs

Special education officials point to students' success at bridging learning differences, and say the benefit is mutual

San Marcos High School junior Teddy Ritter helped a fellow student, Elias, participate in a typing class Monday morning. It was the first time Elias had asked Ritter for help.

“Elias gets to pick who he wants to go to typing with him every first period, and he just picked me today for the first time,” Ritter said. “He’s more comfortable with me; he’s not comfortable with many people. It’s really nice to know that he counts on me.”

Ritter is a student aide for the special-needs program at San Marcos High, 4750 Hollister Ave. Elias has severe autism and can only attend certain classes with an aide.

“If I sent one of my students over to a class with an aide, a lot of the teachers here are really incredible,” special education teacher David Slatus told Noozhawk. “They are super open to it and it opens up a whole world of opportunities.”

Ritter notices a difference in behavior when he helps certain students. They are more receptive and ultimately do better, he said.

“These kids are just as normal as anybody else, they just have a harder time learning,” said Ritter, who better controls his own bipolar disorder through his role as an aide. “I like to help them and it’s fun.”

Ritter’s friend, the late K.C. Carlsen, who looked over Ritter for many years, inspired him to be a student aide. An avid fisherman and basketball player, Carlsen taught Ritter how to fish, play basketball and kayak, and he included Ritter any way he could.

“I couldn’t even explain it in words; he’s like our oldest son, to our son he’s like an older brother,” said Ritter’s mother, Susan. “I don’t think my son would be where he is today without him.

“He knew how to deal with his ups and downs, and work with his strengths and weaknesses to improve his confidence.”

Carlsen lost his life in a lobster-diving accident off Santa Cruz Island in December. Now, Ritter vows to either pursue a teaching degree or a captain’s license in Carlsen’s honor.

“I know what it’s like to have a lot of energy; this helps me control that energy,” Ritter said. “I know what they go through and know how they are feeling, and it helps a lot.”

Slatus, a 32-year-old UCSB post-graduate, said the students react to the aides differently than they do to a teacher.

“They see them as a friend first and not as an authoritative figure, which can really help the learning process,” he explained.

But the students with special needs aren’t the only ones benefiting from the new relationships, said Slatus, who is also known as Mr. S. When students have the opportunity to develop a lasting relationship as a peer and mentor, they often do, he said.

“We have a lot of students who use the opportunity in such a positive way,” he said. “Speaking with other teachers, it’s just a totally different dynamic than what they are used to. They have a chance to be that positive role model and step up. It’s really cool.”

Teacher’s assistant Gary Cummins, who has worked with special-needs children for more than 17 years, said the student aides gain a valuable perspective earned with patience and compassion.

“If students have challenges at home, they come here and realize thier challenges aren’t really as bad as they thought they were,” he said. “If they can approach the situation positively and critically, and take those skills home with them, it makes the whole experience worthwhile.”

Between the eight students in the class, Slatus and his assistants have a wide range of development levels to address.

Blaire has Down syndrome. Her social skills are quite developed but instruction requires repetition and patience. Slatus and an aide, Jose, spent Monday morning helping Blaire differentiate between the minute and hour hands of a clock. Next was practicing counting change with laminated fake dollar bills and plastic coins. Slatus would use both visual and auditory cues to help Blaire understand, as well as ask the same question several different ways in hopes of receiving the right answer.


“I always try to recognize how I’m asking the question,” Slatus said.

Clayton has severe autism and has difficulty expressing himself, and with any sign of negativity he shuts off. Slatus spent about an hour with him, listening to him read paragraphs of a story line by line, and asking comprehension questions when he finished.

“With evaluations, the staff and I at the end of year turn around and say, ‘Wow, that kid made a jump,’ but you never see any improvement day-to-day,” he said. “The fastest tangible improvement is from month-to-month. It’s extremely gradual.”

If there is one common theme, it’s positive reinforcement. Every correct answer is met with a congratulatory high-five. Slatus strives to establish a positive attitude that is matched by his optimism and humor.

“I try to promote over here a huge sense of camaraderie with students and try to work as a family,” he said. “We’re all in this together.

“I try to let people know that I’m stoked to be here. We’re here to do the best we can and the kids feed off that.”

Blaire’s mom, Lynn Rodriguez, served on the Santa Barbara School Board and is San Marcos High’s representative for the Parent Advisory Committee. She is thrilled by the supportive nature of the faculty and students.

“I am extremely happy with the school,” she said. “They have a supportive administration and Dave is great teacher. He’s flexible and willing to work with parents, and the students on campus are incredibly supportive.”

While some of the aides aren’t exact matches for Blaire’s personality, many have been extremely helpful, Rodriguez said.

“We had an aide last year who is now in college; if I could clone her one thousand times over I would,” she said.

But she said there can be a better balance of instructional classes versus more “light-hearted” ones.

“We need to find the right balance where she is learning as much as she can but doesn’t burn out,” Rodriguez said of her daughter.

The school could foster better communication between parents and allow more input from parents in regards to curriculum, Rodriguez said. She also wants to see more special-needs kids participate in regular classes using a Powerpoint slide show that highlights the basic concepts and allows students like Blaire to become part of the class activities. Overall, however, she is pleased with her daughter’s education.

“There is so much support and they are willing to work with us,” Rodriguez said. “I feel like everything is in place, we can just add a few extra things.”

For Teddy Ritter, he will strive to change kids’ lives just as a friend changed his. In fact, Carlsen’s fiancée made Ritter a promise.

“She told me she wants to take over his job of keeping me in line and making sure I finish school,” Ritter said. “That made me feel really good.”

Noozhawk staff writer Alex Kacik can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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