How a dynamic team begins a new school year for children with learning challenges

Hillsides Education Center, HEC, Pasadena, special education, Los Angeles, learning disabilities, severe emotional disturbedLabor Day used to mark the beginning of the school year. Now school calendars have been pushed back, and students, including those at Hillsides Education Center (HEC), find themselves back in the classroom in the middle of August.  Fortunately, our school is air-conditioned, so students can begin the school year in a modicum of comfort.

As I walked around the campus those first few days of school, students and staff didn’t seem to mind the early commencement of classes.  Instead, there was an air of excitement and a sense of comfort as the academic routine took hold.

For some of our residents, school is a place where they excel.  The predictable program and the learning process offer a familiar place where they can set aside the traumas they’ve experienced and just enjoy the engagement of classmates and favorite teachers and staff. For others, the opposite is true. School has been a gauntlet marked by failure and frustration. They are filled with memories of learning challenges and faulty educational methods that never fully addressed their academic struggles. For these students, the thought of returning to school can be traumatizing.

Whether students walk down the hill from one of our residences or make their way from their own homes in the community, the student body at HEC is composed of both the excited and reluctant who hope to learn, advance, succeed, and achieve. The challenges are great, but there is no better place than HEC to address their complex needs both academic and emotional.

I may be biased, but am nevertheless not reluctant to assert that HEC is one of the finest special education centers in Los Angeles County. Many school districts throughout the area will attest to this.  In spite of many schools to choose from to entrust their most vulnerable students, they choose to send students to HEC, knowing that the teachers and staff will do everything in their power to help our students be successful.

The challenges our teaching staff confront are considerable, which is all the more reason for me to be edified by the energy, commitment, and dedication that our staff brings to the academic enterprise. Among our staff of superbly qualified teachers is the master of them all, Debi Szilagi-Johnson.  She served as one of the first teachers more than thirty years ago, and she continues to have the same enthusiasm and energy for teaching as she did when she first arrived at HEC.

I often stop by her classroom when touring with visitors for no other reason than to see a master at work. She is conscientious, diligent, and extraordinarily committed not only to the academic achievement of each of her students but also to their well-being. She goes out of her way to keep all those involved in the care of her students informed as to how the children are doing, from their reading level to their interaction with peers. Debi is a great example of how education is not a profession but a way of life.

Debi, the rest of our teachers, and the entire staff at HEC establish a safe environment for the children, who are vulnerable, so they can pursue their education in spite of the learning and emotional challenges they have. No one achieves at school without a real desire to learn and advance, but it is fine teachers like the staff at HEC that nurture this desire and make it possible.

So welcome back, HEC students and staff. I look forward to what I know is going to be a successful school year, fueled by excellent teachers, a supportive environment, and for now perhaps most important, air conditioning.

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