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Local teachers honored

Posted: December 9, 2008 10:35 p.m.
Updated: December 10, 2008 4:59 a.m.
Watching autistic children - who normally go through life silent and alone - make new friends is far more important to Julie Hildebrand than receiving an award.

But the Charles Helmers Elementary School special-education teacher and fellow educator Cheryle Erlich said they were honored to be given a 2008 California School Board Association Golden Bell Award for their work with autistic and general students.

The "buddy program," which pairs 28 regionalized autistic special-education students with general-education peers of the same age, has blossomed into an award-winning program during the past three years as children learn to accept each other despite their physical or mental differences.

Joan Lucid, Saugus Union School District assistant superintendent sees the program as a blessing.

"I've been over to that school and watched the interaction between the kids, and it's wonderful to see some of the children who may not have been accepted and cared for to have friends," Lucid said.

"That's the blessing that's come out of it," she said. "Everyone feels they have gotten some kind of learning out of it."

Hildebrand said students in first through third grades participate in the program.

"We get together for different parts of the day, like lunch and recess, PE, the library and assemblies," she said. "We are trying to let the children form bonds, and the kids have really benefited from it."

For autistic children, who are often withdrawn, the peer program helps take them out of their shells.

"They have grown through making personal relationships," Hildebrand said. "I have a population of kids who don't make friendships easily and don't desire to be around other kids. But now, since we've started this program, they are searching out other kids."

When the general-education kids first started the peer-to-peer program, Hildebrand said, a feeling of trepidation existed.

"The first year we did this, the (autistic kids) were unsure. They were really wary," Hildebrand said. "A lot of them are non-verbal and might have to learn to behave appropriately. The (general education) kids would back away and look at them funny."

Time has proven to be a patient teacher, however, and the entire school's population has learned a worthwhile lesson.

"Now the kids will come up to us. It's been a really good thing - just the idea that (general education) kids are getting to know kids with special needs and understanding them," she said.

One of Hildebrand's most proud achievements is seeing autistic kids be accepted as kids.

"Parents come up to me and tell me that their (autistic kids) get invited to birthday parties," she said.
"The thing my parents tell me most is that ‘this is the first time my kids have ever had a friend.'"

The Golden Bell Awards honors excellence in education by recognizing outstanding school districts and county offices of education in California.

"Our school leaders are making a difference every day in the lives of our students, and the recipients of this award have demonstrated exactly that," said Kathy Kinley, California School Board Association president.


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