Grace King High School broadcast program offers unique approach to special education
enior Seth Bode is pacing back and forth in the main office of Grace King High School in Metairie. In front of him is a microphone. Shortly, he will be reading the school’s morning announcements and he is nervous as he rehearses his lines. Bode reads cards that his teacher Bridget Seals holds out for him.
“Good morning, my name is Seth,” he says. To an outsider, it is such a simple phrase. But for Seals and Bode, it is momentous. Seth Bode is autistic, and has trouble socializing and speaking to others. Even in the moments leading up to his recitation of the announcements, Bode seems removed and in his own world, not responding to others who address him. But Seals has learned of, as she calls it, the “magic of the microphone” and has found that her students often open up in surprising ways.
The special education broadcast program at Grace King, run by speech therapist Seals and augmentative speech therapist Millie Mayeux, uses a unique approach in getting special needs students to communicate. Seals came up with the idea seven years ago after Hurricane Katrina. Today, she has 35 students with a broad range of verbal abilities. Some will speak independently, others will only respond if asked questions, and a few are simply non-verbal.
Her main tool is the microphone.
For an hour each week, Seals passes a microphone around her classroom while students read aloud current events and weather reports off a television screen. Seals explained that her students have trouble verbalizing because they are unable to detect cues for the moments when they should speak and because they lack confidence in the way they speak, which is often mumbled. The microphone is both a prop and prompt: a student knows it is his or her turn to speak when the instrument is in their hands. And they can hear distinctly their own voice, which becomes an aid to improving their speech in a classroom environment. As lagniappe, the microphone makes her students feel like TV broadcasters, something they thoroughly enjoy.
“There is no doubt that this program encourages and facilitates communication skills,” Seals said. “Parents often come to me and say, ‘Wow, he came home today and told me, President Obama said this,’ and they wonder, where is this coming from? We are teaching that here every day.”
As a bonus, Seals was able to persuade the school’s principal to allow her students to participate in the morning announcements. Twice a week at Grace King, students read the pledge of allegiance, the daily lunch menu and the weather report to their fellow students, broadcast over the school’s public address system. The program’s integration into the school’s daily routine has been a plus for both her students and the rest of Grace King’s student body.
“The special needs students are participating in the morning announcements side by side with our honor students and student council leaders and performing the same functions,” Grace King Principal Meg Griffon said. “It becomes more than tolerance when they’re actually doing the same things. The students can see, ‘OK, this kid is just the same as me, he just has a different style.'”
Though Seals said that Bode has always been able to speak and respond to questions, the broadcast program has helped him become more extroverted, and that now, he is more likely to initiate conversation. Also taking part in announcements that morning was Antoine Minter, 16, a severely autistic student who, when he first entered the program, had trouble focusing and responding to questions. After two years of “broadcasting” however, Minter is more focused in his responses, especially when prompted in front of a microphone, a physical cue that Seals said he needs. He recited the pledge of allegiance on this particular morning, without help from his paraprofessional or Seals.
“When they first started doing announcements, there was hysterical laughter from classrooms, and teachers were saying, ‘What are you doing?'” Seals said. Seven years later, she said the program is well-supported by the school, and the student population is sensitive to the fact that her students are working on their communication skills. Ann Depp, a special education teacher at the school who worked with Seals on starting the program, added that the communication skills the students pick up are priceless, regardless of the extent to which they can speak. She stressed that while the program may not get the students to speak normally, it will certainly get them to communicate their needs more often and answer appropriately in more cases.
“I don’t think some people realize how important these communication skills are,” Depp said. “If you can just get them to say, ‘my ear hurts’, you can learn so much.”
Seals added that it’s “all about repetition,” and that if she can say “Good morning, how are you?” and get an answer by putting a microphone in front of one of her students, she considers that a success in some cases.
When Josh Nehlig, 18, first entered the program, he wouldn’t say a word. Nehlig is selectively nonverbal and withdrawn, and before working with Seals, some people thought he was mute. Now, he is more comfortable speaking with people, and especially enjoys speaking into a microphone.
“I feel proud of myself,” Nehlig said, speaking into the microphone. “Sometimes, other students say, you did a good job on the announcements.”
Seals and Mayeux are working to expand the program to other schools, even though it is not funded by the school district. The broadcast equipment at Grace King, which includes microphones, TVs, sound mixers and speakers, was provided by Melvin Volz, the owner of C&M Music Center in Kenner. Seals and Mayeux have expanded their program to Bissonet Elementary School and West Jefferson High School, but Seals said it is her hope that they can put a special education broadcast program in every school in the district.
“It does magical things. It allows our students to have their voices heard,” Seals said.