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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

Into ASSIST, the program supporting students outside the classroom

Shreya Rallabandi
The ASSIST garden, guarded by a sign pointing towards the program’s classroom.

Editor’s Note: Alec and Erika are pseudonyms for a student in this story.

Every weekday morning at 9, Alec, a junior, enters a portable building on the far west end of the school and goes into a room with individual desks lining the walls, a couple of recliner couches smothered in blankets and pillows, tables housing art supplies and puzzles and an adjacent kitchen with a kettle usually running. A garden lies to its right. The portable building across from this one houses a therapist available throughout the day for sessions. 

Alec’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) allows him access to such features, among many others, of the Achieving Student Success with Intervention Support and Therapy (ASSIST) program. 

According to ASSIST teacher Kerri Slover, the program works to rehabilitate students who have suffered from mental health issues or experienced trauma. Students may be recommended to ASSIST by a teacher or administrator for reasons including difficulty focusing, emotional issues or trauma. In general, though, the primary reason for being recommended is low attendance. 

ASSIST’s full-time therapist works with students on building coping strategies or working through issues that are affecting their ability to make academic progress. The program currently serves 10 kids.

ASSIST offers a place for students to check in and out throughout the day as needed for support, therapy, a quiet place to work on assignments “or just get away from it all,” Slover said.

Alec has been a part of the program since the second semester of his freshman year. He “cannot stand the consistency of general education,” a trait he attributes to his bipolar disorder, which catalyzes mania and interferes with his learning. 

“With ASSIST, I’m able to do self-paced online classes,” Alec said. “I don’t have to worry about getting behind in classes or going too fast and not having anything to do when I’m in a manic episode.”

Alec’s IEP allows him access to online classes on Cyber High. Since all of Alec’s current courses are online, he ends up spending all of his class time in the ASSIST room — something he does not mind. He added that the teachers’ care and the resources in the space make it extremely comforting. Alec said he also has trouble staying in a single environment while listening and learning, so moving between the ASSIST classroom and therapist’s portable helps him focus.

His IEP also allows him access to certain accommodations, including an external therapist and family counselor through the Wraparound program, which provides Alec with additional outside support.

“I’ve been going to these therapists and it’s really helpful to have someone to talk to outside of ASSIST, because it allows us to process trauma or go through different coping mechanisms without having to return right back to the classroom afterwards,” he said.

Alec feels that therapy in ASSIST is much more lighthearted than external therapy, because it is geared toward orienting a student so that they are in a state to reenter the classroom and be productive. In situations where students are distressed, need someone to talk to or even need an inpatient service, an onsite therapist can provide support, allowing students to take their mental health into greater consideration.

Alec also noted that the kindness of teachers and the sense of inclusion offered by his peers in ASSIST is a major difference between ASSIST and general education. In ASSIST, Alec feels, students form bonds and interact with one another regardless of personality; their underlying commonalities trump smaller differences.

“In general education, I was always so hesitant to make friends,” he said. “I thought they’d probably think I’m weird or mental. But in ASSIST, there really are no separating factors.”

While Alec said he started with Cs in his freshman year, he is now achieving high As in every one of his classes and feels that he is doing “incredible” with his learning. 

“I was seriously thinking, ‘I’m just going to drop out.’ But now that I was introduced to these resources, I’m excited to go to college,” Alec said. “I don’t care if I go on campus or online. I just know that I have the ability to go to college because I was given an alternative style of education that worked for me.”

Slover — who alongside teacher Trisha Lee and therapist Laura Swan form faculty faces of ASSIST — works to support students like Alec and keep ASSIST the kind of space it is. Her job as a teacher, instead of direct instruction, focuses more on helping students remain on track toward graduation, stay productive in class and work toward their academic goals. 

“I try to be uplifting and positive,” Slover said. “And I make sure the students know I’m there to support them. My favorite part is getting to know all my awesome students. I look forward to being here and seeing them when they walk through the door.”

Slover also helps coordinate students’ IEPs, which can include features such as Alec’s Wraparound, extensions on assignments and extended test-taking time. 

Slover aims to make ASSIST a “home away from home” and a place where students can feel “comfortable to just relax when they need to.” She enjoys leaving little surprises for students, and loves seeing how students support each other and connect with one another, citing a conversation where students bonded over experiences in therapy and psychiatry.

“Special education is daunting for a lot of kids I know — they think that means they have a hard time with learning,” Slover said. “Our group of students are very cognitively bright and motivated and just need a different environment to be successful.”

Erika, a senior who has been in ASSIST since the second semester of her sophomore year, credits ASSIST as a key part in her college journey. Due to her experiences with ASSIST, she has realized that there is not just one solid path to embark on when pursuing higher education, and that the path that works best for some may not work best for others. The program also aided her and her parents in finding schools to apply to that offer similar accommodations, a primary factor in determining Erika’s college list.

“I used to neglect my mental health and I thought school was more important,” Erika said. “I realized, if my mental health gets too bad, I can’t even do school. It’s helped me realize that taking care of my mental health is not a waste of time because in the end, it actually helped me with my education.”

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