Michelle Hanson, right, smiles as one of her Imago Dei students sits in Mayor Cameron Smyth's chair in his office at City Hall during a visit on Feb. 5, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal
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As an upper school humanities teacher at the Imago Dei School, Michelle Hanson is on a mission to not only develop her students’ academic knowledge, but also their life and social skills through unique institutional and community-based programs.

“I love the environment that we have because I feel like what’s always on the table is what is best for the student,” Hanson said.  “Everyone has a purpose and should be able to have an opportunity to achieve as much as they can.”

Started in 2011, the Imago Dei School is Trinity Classical Academy’s “school within a school” which serves students with special needs and developmental disabilities like autism.

Students in the program receive instruction on core academics as well as adaptive and social skills from the Imago Dei faculty members, who are trained in academic intervention, cognitive modifiability and Applied Behavioral Analysis.

However, the main goal of the program is to create cultural literacy among its students and to bridge the gap between special education and general education students.

“When we started Imago Dei, we knew that students would be mainstreamed,” Imago Dei School Principal Megan Howell said.  “Right away that starts a culture of inclusion in everything we do.”

This culture of inclusion has been a driving force for Hanson, who joined the Imago Dei staff in 2011 when she heard of program’s inception from Howell while she was looking at enrolling her own children at Trinity.

“Even just hearing the vision of it, it was completely inspiring to me,” Hanson said.  “The beauty of Imago Dei is that strong belief that all are created in the image of God and therefore you’re treating each other and everyone accordingly.”

With a master’s degree in marriage, family and child counseling and experience as a Christian school administrator and teacher, Hanson began to combine her own skills and Trinity’s specialized training to better serve her students and develop innovative programs.

Peer Mentor Program

One of the first programs Hanson helped create was the Peer Mentor Program which pairs a Trinity general education student with an Imago Dei student to assist them with their educational, social and vocational development.

“That has been a fantastic experience and one of my favorite things is that it spills into the culture as a whole,” Hanson said.

With the idea and research from Howell, Hanson put together the Peer Mentor Program, interviewed Trinity students and trained students on behavioral modification principals and how to be a peer mentor.

“Research shows that students with developmental disabilities and social challenges learn better from their peers than they do in a classroom format,” Howell said.

Howell said these peer mentors provide the conduit to everything students in the Imago Dei School want to do.

Whether it’s participating in theater, playing a varsity sport, singing in the choir or attending an elective class, the peer mentors partner side-by-side with the Imago Dei students to guide them through Trinity’s activities.

“At the heart of it is treating someone that has special needs like a typical teenager,” Hanson said.  “These teenagers want friendships, they want to be respected, they don’t want to be babied so we talked through different ways to do that.”

Hanson and Howell have seen this program in action when students from Trinity and Imago Dei prepared for the school’s annual Ball Dance together, as they took dance lessons and picked out tuxes.

“We met with peer mentors and talked about how we can come along students in Imago Dei to make this a really successful experience for those who want to go,” Hanson said.  “It just ended up being a really awesome experience.”

Reliable Errand Service

Last year, Hanson also developed a business for her students where they run errands for staff members and go out into the community once a month to develop decision-making and occupational skills.

“It builds in the job skills, it builds in the life skills and it makes it exciting and purposeful,” Hanson said.

Prior to running errands in the community, staff members fill out order forms and Imago Dei students discuss how to navigate the specific errands they are assigned to.

Hanson speaks with her students about how to examine the settings they are in, how to great people in that setting, how to navigate the bus system and how to effectively time manage.

Through the Reliable Errand Service, students also have the opportunity to give back to their community.

“It’s a great way to work on myriad skills with something that is very functional for our students and then also allows them to minister and care for those in the community,” Howell said.

Jobs and Community Based Instruction

As part of the Imago Dei School, students also hold on-campus jobs twice a week and off-campus jobs once a week.

On campus, students work at the security desk, as classroom teacher’s assistants, as PE assistants, in maintenance and with campus mail.

Off campus, students have held positions at Real Life Church, Shelter Hope Pet Shop, Chronic Tacos and Undergrounds Coffeehouse.

“They love it,” Hanson said.  “There is a sense of purpose to that and they love to go off campus.”

Students also participate once a week in a Community Based Instructions Program which takes students into the local community to learn how to integrate in the community and develop relationships with business owners.

“We look through and assess what skills would be the most beneficial for them to work on and then we go out into the community and practice those skills,” Hanson said.

For example, Hanson took her students to a local pharmacy to look at medications and determine what they would need for certain illness or injuries.

These community-based learning experiences and independent jobs allow Hanson’s students to develop their own skills, determine what they’re good at and cultivate their self-determination.

“It’s neat to see them have opportunity for connections,” Hanson said.  “It’s exciting to see them understand their world and people more.”

Hanson attributes the success of her own programs to the “culture of yes” at Trinity, the constant collaboration between teachers and the support of the school’s leadership.

“We’d be lying if we said it wasn’t hard work, but it’s so worth it,” she said.  “Our community here at trinity is culture of yes; from the top down… it’s exciting to be in a place where Imago Dei is at the heart of everyone.”

ccox@signalscv.com
661-287-5575
On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_

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Christina Cox
Christina Cox is a multimedia journalist covering education, community and breaking news in the Santa Clarita Valley. She joined The Signal as a staff writer in August 2016.
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