Ardrey Kell department chair incorporates exceptional children into school life

Ardrey Kell High School.
Ardrey Kell High School. Kate Jones

In 1973, Jan Miller took a psychology class. Miller found herself with a serious case of senioritis, resulting in a less than stellar psych grade. Fortunately, her teacher allowed her to make this up through volunteering at a center for students with disabilities. Turns out, what seemed to be a simple volunteer job to bring up her grade ended up being a lifelong career and passion.

At 62, Miller Is in her 41st year of teaching, and in that time, has taught children of all ages. She now works with high school students and teachers at Ardrey Kell in south Charlotte as the chair of the Exceptional Children department.

With a masters in learning disabilities, Miller knows her field.

Under Miller, the EC department of Ardrey Kell makes sure to not only give every child educational opportunities, but social opportunities as well. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Exceptional Children teachers use strategies to help students learn, such as co-teaching with general education teachers in the classrooms.

“(Inclusivity) is awesome,” Miller said. “But that doesn’t happen automatically.”

Ardrey Kell has a multitude of initiatives offered to its exceptional students, including art, physical education classes, theater and friends club -- a student organization that creates an environment for all students to socialize and meet. As Miller pointed out, the initiatives wouldn’t be possible without the support of Principal David Switzer and the principals of those who came before him.

Ardrey Kell school psychologist Lynn Marder gives credit to Miller for bringing inclusive programs to the school.

“That’s been her experience and her mission, for students of all difficulties and disabilities,” Marder said.

With Miller able to come in during the summertime to work the 175 students with disabilities into the schedule, Switzer and Miller create a system around her students, rather than pushing them in. For example, when including exceptional students in physical education classes, Miller’s students are placed in classes first, and everyone else is placed after.

“The schedule is done first and foremost for the student with disabilities,” Miller said. “Everyone else’s is created around that.”

In fact, Miller recently had a discussion with administration about where to place the art classes for the 2017-2018 school year so they match with the EC schedule. As Miller pointed out, it’s critical for all teachers to be open to including EC teachers in their classes.

“It’s a lot of work together,” Miller said. “And that’s not the way it is at every high school.”

The EC department also opens the door to multiple extracurricular activities. The highlight for many EC students with a theatrical side was the recent production of a student-written play. The play was written to include EC students, along with their EC teachers and other theater students.

With the help of staff, EC students are also able to attend prom and the senior trip.

“That doesn’t just happen,” Miller said. “The students with disabilities need support, so we have to work together. And those are the things that make schools so wonderful.”

Miller does not teach exceptional children anymore, but instead focuses on educating their teachers.

“One of my jobs is to nurture younger teachers who are learning to support students with disabilities,” she said.

When asked about the highlight of working in her field, Miller’s response was simple: Graduation.

“It’s a big deal for a student with a disability to graduate,” she said. “For most it’s an expectation, but for a student with a disability it’s not a slam dunk, it’s not something that happens without a tremendous amount of effort on the part of staff and students, and parents.”

This story was written as a part of the Charlotte Observer’s high school journalism Explorer Post. Questions? Email Corey Inscoe at cinscoe@charlotteobserver.com.