Metro-East Living

‘So positive and upbeat’ ... special ed students learn life lessons

Student assistant Katelyn Jonak helps senior Taylor Ratajczyk make a batch of brownies in Gina Gunn’s special education classroom to sell at the Flight Crew Cafe at Columbia High School.
Student assistant Katelyn Jonak helps senior Taylor Ratajczyk make a batch of brownies in Gina Gunn’s special education classroom to sell at the Flight Crew Cafe at Columbia High School.

Katie Lantsberger gets to Columbia High School before 7 a.m. each day to brew coffee and roll a cart full of muffins, cookies and other treats down to the lobby.

The sophomore wants to be ready when other students and teachers walk in the door, seeking breakfast.

Katie waits on customers while keeping an eye on the hallway. When she sees Mr. Duguay arrive, she whips up a 50-cent cup of hot chocolate and delivers it to his classroom.

“It’s fantastic,” said Matt Duguay, who teaches social studies. “I’m getting spoiled. Katie always greets me with a smile. It’s a great way to start the day.”

The kids are always so positive and upbeat. They always have smiles on their faces. They’re always happy to see you, no matter what.

Katelyn Jonak on working with Flight Crew

Katie is a member of Flight Crew, a program for special education students who operate a cafe and gear shop at the school.

It’s a hands-on experience that helps them develop skills such as cooking, baking, washing dishes, using appliances, taking inventory, making change and serving the public.

“They will one day be able to work in a kitchen without being afraid,” said Jeanne Goacher, director of special ed for Columbia Community School District 4. “They’re using computers. They’re using cash registers. They’re using mixers, coffee pots, you name it. And they’re confident. What they’re doing in the classroom, they’re going to take to the workplace. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Flight Crew is the brainchild of special ed teacher Gina Gunn. It’s named for the school mascot, the Eagles.

Gina, 55, joined the Columbia staff in 2015 after 12 years building a similar classroom-to-workplace transition program at Waterloo High School.

“She has such a passion for the kids,” said Gloria Ealy, a special ed teacher’s aide in Columbia for 18 years. “She not only gets involved with them, she gets involved with their families, and once you make that connection, it’s just a win-win.”

Gina’s classes include students with cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, cognitive impairments and behavioral issues for all or part of the day.

Gina and Gloria are assisted by several general education students earning class credit or fulfilling the school’s community service requirements.

“It’s great for (special ed) students to be able to interact with their peers instead of always adults, and that’s often the case,” Gina said.

The Flight Crew classroom is lively and colorful. The store occupies one corner with a rack of royal-blue Eagles clothing and shelves filled with gear, ranging from winter scarves to ball caps, headbands to tote bags.

On a recent Thursday, Katie was busy folding jerseys and packing merchandise to sell at Friday night’s football game.

“My favorite item, I would say, are these cups,” she said, holding up an insulated, stainless-steel cup with an eagle on it. “We just got them in. They can hold hot or cold.”

Special ed student Grace Grant, 16, also was prepping for the game, stuffing store coupons in tiny plastic footballs to be given away as prizes.

In the kitchen, special ed student Taylor Ratajczyk, 18, was making wooden coffee stirrers dipped in almond bark to sell at a local shop called Fabulous Finds.

Student assistant Katelyn Jonak, 17, demonstrated how to decorate the stirrers with candy sprinkles before Taylor took over.

“OK, that looks good, Tay,” Katelyn said, prompting Taylor to compliment Katelyn right back. “She’s a good senior. I like her as a friend.”

About that time, the oven timer rang, signaling a batch of brownies were ready and prompting Grace to yell, “Fire in the hole,” as a warning for students to steer clear.

Katelyn has been working with special needs students since fifth grade. She hopes to become a teacher or physical therapist someday.

“The kids (in Flight Crew) are always so positive and upbeat,” she said. “They always have smiles on their faces. They’re always happy to see you, no matter what.”

In another corner of the classroom, student assistant Sakura Lohmeyer helped special ed student Jonathan Whelan, 17, with Oreo, the guinea pig.

They follow a daily schedule, cleaning his cage and providing fresh hay, food and water. They also care for a parakeet named Pip Squeak.

“Some days (Jonathan is) good at listening, and some days, it’s challenging,” said Sakura, 17, a senior. “But we get there. We just do things over and over and over. We take our time.”

Gina hasn’t always been a teacher. She worked in accounting for 20 years before helping children learn to read as a volunteer with Junior Achievement. Gina decided to return to college and earn a bachelor’s degree in special ed and a master’s in elementary ed at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

“My goal was to be teaching by the age of 40, and I made it,” she said. “It got my job (in Waterloo) in 2003.”

Today, Flight Crew members grow herbs in the school’s greenhouse and give them to cooking classes or sell them through Future Farmers of America.

Several students hold real jobs, thanks to a coaching and modeling element of the program. Taylor works at McDonald’s, and Katie helps with after-school child care.

Students also tour local businesses that are potential employers and practice social skills in the community. Recently, they went to Dairy Queen for treats.

“They had to place their own orders for food,” Gina said. “They had to speak up. They had to make eye contact. So the profits they earn help us increase their life skills. We’re all about independence and employment.”

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