Special needs van driver challenges students to rethink common stigmas

October 27, 2017 — by Kevin Sze and Jeffrey Xu

Each morning around 7 a.m. a small school bus leaves the back parking lot and drives directly to homes in Saratoga, Monte Sereno and Los Gatos. The job of these drivers is to transport students in the special needs program here at school.

According to assistant principal Kerry Mohnike, the bus belongs to Saratoga’s Community Based Instruction (CBI) program. The drivers are Barbara Straw and Lindsay Harris, aides within the program.

Since Los Gatos High does not have a CBI program for special needs students, the school is obligated to provide transportation and on-campus aid to the Los Gatos students in the program. Usually, there are two to three vans on campus each day, each transporting around four students. Aides such as Harris and Straw are crucial to students’ education and shoulder multiple duties in order to provide these students with the support they need.

According to Harris, she drives the CBI program students every day, both in the morning and after school, taking around an hour for each trip. She works with Straw to figure out which routes to take and which kids each of them is responsible for.

Harris said that the task is not as time-consuming and tedious as it may seem.

“I enjoy driving them around because I get to talk with them,” Harris said. “They’re pretty funny, especially when you get to talk to them outside of school and have actual conversations with them.”

Harris is in her second year at the school. She has a lot of experience working with students, having been in the secondary program at West Valley Community College and also having coached basketball in the past.

“I’ve always loved working with kids, and I feel like it’s a great job to work with children with special needs,” Harris said. “They are completely different from depictions of them on TV and the media. They have their own personalities; they have good days and bad days, just like anyone else, and nobody really sees that.”

Harris observes that most people think of students with special needs as “static” people, who are unable to progress in life. This is simply not true, she said. She notes that most of the time, her CBI students would always forget to close the van doors after getting off in the morning. When a student actually comes back after realizing and asks if they can close the door, she is ecstatic.

“I enjoy seeing their growth,” Harris said. “Like the van door situation. What may be a little thing in our lives, that’s always taken as granted, is in their lives a huge step forward.”

In addition, Harris realizes that due to preconceived notions from their peers, students in the CBI program can be a hidden presence on a high school campus. She challenges the people outside of the program to reach out and get to know them better.

If you just stop and say hi to a student, you’ll actually learn that you guys are more common than you think,” Harris said.

CBI student senior Jack Elizondo does not ride the vans, but is a part of Zoom Transportation, which is a transportation company similar to Uber, but for students with special needs.  Elizondo said he hopes to make more friends at the school before he graduates and leaves for West Valley College next year.

“I really like meeting new people,” Elizondo said. “By talking to people, I can learn more about them.”