An Inside Look at Special Education at Cayuga Secondary School

Students pose outside high school

Caption: Special Education students pose with staff prior to enjoying prom festivities

Although Educational Assistant (EA) Appreciation Day is officially celebrated on April 3 each year, not a single day goes by that Cayuga Secondary School doesn’t feel gratitude and appreciation for the incredible contributions its EAs make.

The school runs an extensive Special Education program, currently comprised of four specialized self-contained classes which will expand to five next September. Within this structure, there are various specialized programs including Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Developmental Delay (DD), Mild Intellectual Disability (MID), and a new incoming Mixed Exceptionality (ME) program, all with students who have unique individualized needs, with many of those student’s exceptionalities being extremely intensive in nature.

“Students are acutely aware when they are both respected and liked, and when adults who work with them want to help them succeed in their life goals,” says Andrea Jenkins, Special Education department head, of the environment the team works to foster. “The EAs here create connections and bonds built on a foundation of understanding, acceptance, friendship, and trust. These foundations build success and confidence that will follow our students throughout their lives.”

Jenkins works closely with Vice-Principal Rob Wong, and together they support the high level of synergy, connection, and information sharing which supports students. This is no easy task with such a large team – 12 teachers in addition to 15 EAs. Not a day goes by where Wong is not making operational adjustments to ensure that everything is covered in the best manner possible, all while cultivating the positive relationships among staff that help model the character attributes and interpersonal communications skills everyone strives to foster in students.

This vision is carried out by the whole Special Education department, which works to make the years their students spend at Cayuga among the best of their lives, while helping ensure that each student reaches their goals. Jenkins leads a team that is made up of highly intuitive Teachers and Educational Assistants who anticipate the ever-evolving needs of their students with a gentle, calming force that facilitates the learning styles within their classrooms.

“I love being able to assist students as they build strengths and focus on their abilities,” says Cindy Santopadre, Education Assistant. “Finding ways to cultivate skills, and enabling students to develop and enrich their educational experience is very rewarding. It’s a joy to facilitate, witness, and celebrate the individual successes.”

The incredible level of commitment and expertise that the entire Special Education department consistently brings to their respective roles is inspiring, and a key component of the school’s climate and culture.

“I’ve been able to watch shy Grade 9 students grow into confident adults during their time here,” says Samantha Barless, Educational Assistant. “We have an amazing team who give students the opportunity to grow and learn in the ways they need to, and I’m honoured to come to work each day to serve this role.”

Another strength of the Special Education department at Cayuga is the diversity of the educational backgrounds of the individuals who make up this cohesive group. When a challenge is presented, the team works together and draws from everyone’s strengths to develop a plan and solution. They then implement, examine, and adjust the plan while ensuring that the needs of all students are being met.

“Although the role of an EA has changed over the years, the commitment to helping students learn and succeed remains constant,” says Chris Lovranski, who is soon to celebrate her 20th anniversary in this career field. “There is no greater feeling than to see a student graduate or reach other goals, and go on to become a fulfilled, contributing member of their community.”

The department is proud of the inclusive nature of the entire school, carrying out the work of Grand Erie’s Multi-Year Plan and its Equity indicator. Students in the self-contained Life Skills programs are welcomed into all parts of the school and are encouraged to continue with their learning. Similarly, staff ensure that students are provided with beneficial leadership opportunities throughout the school. This is visible through various Co-operative Education opportunities the students in Special Education are presented with, both within the school setting and within the Cayuga community. Our students have truly shone in their roles during annual craft and plant sales and are looking forward to further demonstrating their leadership capabilities when they help run events.

“I’m honoured to work with our amazing special needs students, and admire their ability to live in the moment, never hampered by what happened yesterday, or what might happen tomorrow,” says Jenkins “Their uniqueness, love of life, and creativity teaches me something new every day.”

For students, the positive atmosphere and culture that is fostered each day does not go unnoticed. As students Kobe, Jedd, Kerri, Jack, Sierra, and Travis conclude: “We like to come to school and work with our friends.”


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