At DePriest Elementary in Austin, teacher Valerie Chappell gives students something their classroom teachers often can’t provide: one-on-one attention.

With weekly 45-minute sessions, Chappell aims to help students develop better reading, research, writing and problem-solving skills.

In one project, special education students watched a film of the children’s literary classic Charlotte’s Web and then recounted what they had learned. Next, they created decorative announcements celebrating the birth of Wilbur the pig, and wrote letters to the character Mr. Zuckerman, explaining why Wilbur should not be killed.

More advanced students start off by writing down what they already know about a topic. Afterwards, they outline what they have learned through their research. This approach teaches students to solve problems and helps develop “an eagerness for learning,” says Chappell.

Fourth-grader George Jenkins says he wanted to “experience how cheetahs lived.” Before he started, Jenkins knew that cheetahs were part of the cat family and that they lived in Africa. Doing research taught him what cheetahs eat, how they have babies and how fast they run.

Chappell is especially driven to work with special education students because, she says, they “get overlooked and not appreciated.”

Last school year, the special education students designed and set up all the props and background scenery for a school play. “They did an excellent job,” says Chappell. And, for the first time, they took part in the school’s Black History Bowl quiz.

“Sometimes it takes so long for them to get from the beginning to the end of something, and the [classroom] teacher’s not going to sit there and say, `Come on, focus, focus,’ ” she adds. “So then they won’t have a finished project when everyone else is turning theirs in. That’s just one more failure for them.”

With Chappell’s extra attention, plus help from peers, special education students are able to make or write comments about what they have learned. “It’s short and sweet and finished . . . and they feel good about the accomplishment,” says Chappell.

Until this year, Chappell had worked only with special ed students and eight children from each classroom. Now she intends to work with all children in the school, except pre-schoolers.

“All of our children have talents and gifts,” says Principal Ruth Lewis-Knight. Chappell says she’s anxious “to bring them out.”

For more information, contact Valerie Chappell or Ruth Lewis-Knight at (312) 534-6165.

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