Categories: COVID-19Opinion

A Special Education Teacher Finds the ‘Silver Lining’ to COVID

Julie Mower is Executive Director of The Phoenix Center in Nutley, NJ.

Ashley Agresti began her career at The Phoenix Center at the age of 19 as a paraprofessional/substitute. The Phoenix Center (located in Nutley, NJ) is an accredited, not-for-profit school serving the educational, behavioral & therapeutic needs of students ages 5-21 with autism, multiple disabilities and intellectual disabilities. As a result of her experience at The Phoenix Center, she decided she wanted to be a classroom teacher and earned her bachelors in elementary/special education from New Jersey City University.  Recently, Ashley completed her master’s in educational leadership from Montclair State University! 

Over the years, Ashley has played a role in numerous classrooms at The Phoenix Center: five different classrooms as a paraprofessional; co-teaching with now Integrative Technology Coordinator, Marc Restaino; and leading our Consumer Family Life (CFL) program since 2014 with great success. This program aims to provide students with authentic opportunities for learning in supportive, dedicated environments. Currently, the program maintains four working labs within the school: a teaching kitchen, a dorm room, vocational room, and a laundry room. Students are introduced to skills in these areas or work to maintain and refine their skills while staying aligned to the New Jersey Student Learning Standards (NJSLS) set forth by their individualized education programs. These experiences regularly lead to job placements in the community.

Most recently, Ashley has been teaching The Phoenix Center’s oldest students, ages 17-20. Her philosophy of education is simple: relationship-based learning between the teacher and their students works best when the learning is experiential. 

At the ASAH Conference for NJ special needs schools, she presented a workshop titled, A Functioning Functional Program, wherein she spoke about The Phoenix Center’s Consumer Family Life Skills program and its restaurant vocational training/skills program to further educator’s knowledge of practical and experiential learning strategies. 

“In the best scenario for programs like these, you engage the students visually as they watch you demonstrate, from an auditory perspective as they listen and then also engage the tactile learner by touch or movement,’’ Ashley says. “The silver lining to COVID-19 has been that it forced me to be even more creative. As an example, there was no cooking last year so we had to emulate baking, made faux cupcakes and used shaving cream instead of frosting. We had to perform the actions of washing dishes with soaps and sponges, without water, and on and on…but we had the students engaged and learning, despite it all.’’ As Ashley commonly exclaims, “What a treat!”

Ashley also says, “I rely heavily on the support staff; we all have a strong relationship with each other; I love collaborating with my peers and staff (especially the paraprofessionals) because I too want to invest in them— the same way my colleagues did with me many years ago. They saw that I had potential and encouraged me. I enjoy paying it forward and helping other people succeed.” 

One of the very first students Ashley ever worked with at The Phoenix Center graduated in June.  Jonathan looked for Ashley in the hallways and always sought her support and guidance.  She says, “We are more than educators – we are their confidants, the detectives who need to figure out what they need and want.  We are their advocates and they rely on us.”

But this young man is not the only one who looks to her for guidance. More broadly, Ashley’s classroom is known by the student body as “a real treat.”  That speaks volumes. What a refreshing change of pace to hear about a school, an educator and her students thriving despite the difficult times we have all experienced these last few years!




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