Teacher Academy creates guide to aid Mason students with disabilities

Raghav Raj | Staff Writer

At Mason High School (MHS), aspiring teachers are casting aside their curriculum to make their school a more inclusive learning environment.

Over the past few months, students at MHS’s Teacher Academy have paused their curriculum to work on a large-scale project alongside the Mason City Schools’ Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) council. The result is a comprehensive “101” guide to MHS, compiling nearly all of the school’s countless activities and traditions into a resource to help students with disabilities. 

Built primarily as a tool for parents and guardians to support and include their children with disabilities in Mason’s culture, the Mason Decoded Guide sees the district’s Inclusive Excellence initiative at work, attempting to address the significant communication gap that these caregivers often face when their kids move on to high school. 

With lots of in-depth information on clubs, events, groups, etc, the spirit behind the guide is to capture the whole experience at MHS so that parents and guardians can help their kids feel connected to the student population without feeling isolated, overwhelmed, or exhausted.

In many ways, these efforts to support students with disabilities have been deeply collaborative — the Decoded Project is what it is thanks to administration, faculty, students, and caregivers alike — but there are few who have advocated for these students as intensely as Jana Surace. Surace, a mother to three students at Mason, serves as a member of the DEI council, and has explained her longstanding fight to accommodate for students with special needs and disabilities as the “call to action” that led her to the council in the first place.

For Surace, this advocacy is personal, and it emerges from a place of necessity. Her daughter Mary, currently an eighth grader, has Down syndrome, and Surace is far too familiar with what she refers to as the “fear of being ‘that’ parent,” a fear that causes a lot of parents and guardians to avoid or be apologetic about speaking out and asking for ways to accommodate their children in various activities.

“It’s one of those things where, far too often, these barriers keep us from advocating for our kids to the fullest extent, and we’re not really able to see what opportunities our kids really have,” said Surace. “When I thought about my kids, and especially my daughter, who’s going to be one of my two freshmen next year, I felt like this was a good moment to take action and really try bridging that gap of communication that’s often there between us parents and the school.”

The idea that Surace settled on, in her words, was one that she had gathered from a community conversation she had attended back in May 2018, where a group of parents were disappointed at not having been made aware of a dance in time to make arrangements for their kids with disabilities to attend.

“Basically, they were asking ‘hey, what if there was a way to know what your kid’s entire school year would look like in advance,’ and that sounded like an interesting approach to me,” said Surace. “So, when I became a member of the DEI council, I just wanted to take that idea and run with it, see what we could do to make it a reality.”

Surace did just that, working with Associate Principal Dr. Robyn Jordan and eventually getting Marcie Blamer, the head of Mason High School’s Teacher Academy, involved with the project. As Blamer explains, it was in conversation with Dr. Jordan that the idea of visualizing school events into one cohesive project really began to take shape.

“Dr. Jordan approached me and basically said, ‘we’re looking for some kind of way to create a connection for kids who may have disabilities or special needs coming into the high school, and we want to make sure it’s not overwhelming and easily accessible for parents,’” said Blamer. “And, especially given the year we’ve all had, my first thought was to organize this information online, in a website that we’d update, that students and their parents could refer to whenever they needed to.” 

(Blamer also has plans to turn information from the website into a color booklet for intervention specialists to give to students and their families in the future; Teacher Academy has applied for a grant from the Mason Schools Foundation to fund the printing and design of these booklets.)

Once Blamer and the DEI team settled on creating a website, the students of Teacher Academy went to work. 

“Almost immediately, I put our curriculum on pause, and I split the two TA bells up into various groups that basically started brainstorming on their parts of the website, whether that’s working on school traditions, communicating with Student Activities, or working with administration,” said Blamer. “And, for the most part, the Teacher Academy students are really psyched about it, and that excitement has created something that I think is very fulfilling for everyone involved.”

That excitement can be seen in students like junior Marissa Riehm, who was one of the Teacher Academy students that presented the MHS Decoded guide to the DEI council this past February. Riehm says that her experience working with the Teacher Academy team on the Decoded Guide has confirmed her passion for teaching and educating.

“To see all these people come together, and to build something that’ll hopefully have a really big impact, is such a rewarding feeling for me,” said Riehm. “Seeing all these future educators creating something that’ll hopefully be maintained and used by the people who need it for a long time? That’s just something I’m so happy I get to do.”

Graphic by Rachel Cai