TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Andi Gillen found herself drawn to teaching children with special needs way back when she was in fifth grade. Gillen, the director of The University of Alabama’s RISE Center, saw a class in her school that served special-needs students. And somehow she knew that’s where she wanted to help out.
“When we were in fifth grade, we could do one service activity – you could go to PE class and help out in kindergarten, or you could go to the office and help with milk cards, and I chose to work in that class,” Gillen said. “And I was in fifth grade, which was pretty young. I didn’t know I wanted to be a teacher, and I didn’t know what special education was, but I just liked helping children.”
Now she’s supervising the staff of the RISE Center, an innovative UA program that serves 50 children. The program mixes children with special needs and their typically developing peers in an integrated classroom. The children range in age from 8 weeks to 5 years.
The RISE program, housed in the Stallings Center, is so popular that Gillen and her staff are unable to serve all the special-needs children whose parents request entry – a waiting list has developed.
So Gillen and her staff developed a program new for the fall called RISE and SHINE Playgroup. The group will have many of the activities RISE students experience during the day, only in a shorter time span – an hour and a half twice a month.
“It’s a mini day of RISE in an hour and half,” Gillen said. “But we’re going to have our therapists and a teacher working with the program. The children are going to have therapy goals, and we’re going to get feedback.”
Gillen came to RISE from the Bell Center Early Intervention in Homewood; she has master’s degrees in special education and early-childhood special education. She encountered the RISE model when she took a summer class in gross motor that involved the RISE program in Tuscaloosa. She began working at RISE in August 2015.
“I love the inclusion model,” she said. “I love the fact that traditional learners and children with special needs are working side by side. And that truly in a RISE classroom, we do not know who the children with special needs are. It is the purist form of inclusion.”
Gillen and her staff take pride in giving all children in RISE individualized and developmentally appropriate attention. For example, a child with Down syndrome may be developmentally delayed in terms of language, but he still can participate in show and tell through communications devices and parental help. The traditional learners treat him like any other peer.
“They naturally are helpers,” she said. “They don’t see the differences. They see the different ways peers learn and play, and they provide the support their friends need.”
As the fall semester begins, Gillen and her staff look forward to redoubling their efforts to providing excellent care at one of UA’s hallmark institutions through hard work, research and innovation.
“The underlying question we ask ourselves when we are doing anything – are we providing the best possible services we can to our children and families?” Gillen said. “To do that, we use evidence- and research-based practices – to make sure we’re cutting edge and current innovative at RISE.”