Tim Gianulis has been inviting kids with special needs into his art classes since he started teaching 25 years ago at Godsman Elementary School in Denver, bringing students from the special-education classroom across the hall into his own room to give their teacher a planning break.
Over the years, as his passion for working with these students grew, he’d find ways to integrate them into his own classes, usually by offering subjects he knew would have low enrollment, like advanced ceramics, and then filling the void with special-needs students. That’s because schools often balked at actually creating a class that paired kids with disabilities with normal-functioning students, since the concept was unorthodox.
When Gianulis moved to George Washington High School, he finally found an administration willing to give his idea a chance — but a year later, that class is ending.
The class, Portfolio Production/Special Education Collaboration, was made possible because under-enrollment in traditional art classes left an ample amount of classroom space for Gianulis to fill, says GW interim principal Jose Martinez. Portfolio Production was a hit, but then the school administration decided to cut one staff member from the visual-arts department, which Gianulis chairs. That would leave the department with only three teachers.
When Gianulis heard about the downsizing, he volunteered to leave.
“I’m at the end of my career, honestly,” he says. “I didn’t see that for all of my other teachers. It’s heartbreaking for me to say, ‘Well, you’ve been in this building for five years, but you’re going to be fired because I’m better than you.’ I just couldn’t do that. So I chose not to.”
Incoming principal Scott Lessard says he was surprised by Gianulis’s decision. But both he and Martinez insist that there’s more than enough money to continue to support the special-education program, even though it may not be in an art class. “All of the funding exists to support those students, more resources than you know what to do with sometimes,” says Martinez. “It’s when you can get creative in doing the right work with the right people — I think that’s critical.”
Kristin Bates, a special-education teacher at GW, spends most of her days with students who have moderate to severe disabilities. She helped Gianulis plan Portfolio Production, which meets four times a week and is one of the two classes her students have outside of their main classroom (the other is physical education). “I hope that the administration sees the benefit of this class, even though with Mr. G gone, there are parts of this that they may be able to replicate in a larger classroom,” she says. “My hope would be if I could still have this, but just in a section of a classroom and have some really good mentors that would want to work with my kids.”
Mentors have been a key to the success of Portfolio Production. Gianulis recruited students from his advanced art class to work with the class for credit. But the mentors say they received much more than credit; they’ve been learning invaluable lessons about disabilities and bridging the gap between mainstream students and those with special needs.
“There’s always an adult in their life,” Gianulis says of the students with disabilities. “Because they are teenagers, they still block you out, just like any teenager does when they’re told what to do. My whole concept there was, well, if they’re going to do the same thing, let’s give them a teacher that’s on their same brainwave, and the teenagers were great; they’re really great teachers for these kids.”
Before the Portfolio Production class, eighteen-year-old Jordan Sykes, a senior at GW who suffers from cerebral palsy, had trouble using her hands for anything. She can’t form words, but she can communicate with sounds and gestures. Her mentor, Lorena Fierro, is an AP art student who specializes in photography.
When they were first paired up, Fierro and Sykes would roam the school hallways on impromptu photo shoots, the camera on Sykes’s lap as she rode in a wheelchair. They developed a way for Sykes to signal to stop the chair, and Fierro taught her how to snap a picture. Back in the classroom, they’d download the picture onto a computer and layer artwork on top of it. Sykes has since grown comfortable using a mouse, and in March, she collaborated on a painting with Fierro.
Outside the art room, Sykes was making even more strides. “In her manual wheelchair yesterday, she was actually able to put the brakes on herself, and that’s something she’s never been able to do before,” Bates says. “I think it’s because she’s been working on the computer, which increases her fine motor skills. I think that that’s helped carry over into some other skills.”
Portfolio Production has an enrollment of eighteen students, twelve of whom suffer from disabilities ranging from Down syndrome and autism to cerebral palsy and blindness. The six mentors recruited by Gianulis were given a crash course by Bates on how to communicate with her students, and goals were set to motivate the mentors.
Junior mentor Sonia Santos says that that primer helped when she was getting to know Evan Dwyer, a mostly uncommunicative student diagnosed with Down syndrome and autism. “It showed an actual purpose for this class,” she recalls. “It established what we were working toward, which is independent movement and thought, working without direction.”
Last year, Dwyer had a hard time taking instructions or making it through any class without standing up and yelling. This year, he’s painting and drawing on his own as Santos sits next to him. “He didn’t have anyone to work with, so I just sat one day and got him to sit down with me and pick up a marker,” she remembers. “That was pretty cool.”
Bates sends videos to Dwyer’s mother, Michelle Vogt, to update her on his progress, and Vogt has been impressed — especially by the bond between Santos and Dwyer. “He imitates her,” she says. “I think that he follows her directions even more than he might an adult’s, because he has such a good connection with her. It’s a nice balance in his day to be around peers as well as trained adults who can help him both socially and academically. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
While it will be difficult to leave his students, Gianulis says he’s likely to teach somewhere else next year, ideally at a place where he can continue his work with special education. “I would love to be able to take this program and teach it to teachers across the state,” he says. “That would be awesome.”
Bates agrees. “I think the thing that I’ve seen the most improvement in is their social skills,” she says. “I think every kid is peer-motivated to do what their peers do or just be part of a group. Their communication has gone up, and their social communication has gone up.... A lot of people can look at my students and judge them, but they really can do a lot. They’re really cool people; they’ve got great personalities, and once you get to know them, you can see that. That’s what’s so good about this group of mentors: They see that it’s a person, not just a disability.”
See for yourself on Wednesday, May 4, from 4 to 6 p.m. at a Portfolio Production class organized by Santos in the main lobby of George Washington High School.