Guest Interviews — 23 Minutes

Special Education Teacher Mikell Nigro

Guest Interviews — 23 Minutes

What’s it like to teach students with autism?

Dr. Gwynette interviews his sister.

Mikell Nigro is a special education teacher for the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania and previously taught for 14 years at The Timothy School, a school for children with autism.

Dr. Gwynette: Hello. My name is Dr. Frampton Gwynette, from the Autism News NetWORK. We are on the road today in Audubon, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, for a very special interview with an expert in the area of autism. I’m here with Mikell Nigro.

Mikell Nigro: Expert, I love it.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. Well, thanks for doing this.

Mikell Nigro: Thanks for having me.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah, I’m going to just go ahead and fire away, if that’s all right?

Mikell Nigro: Do it.

Dr. Gwynette: Sure. So, what kind of work do you do?

Mikell Nigro: So I am a certified special education teacher. I have been in the field, this is my 19th year. In Pennsylvania, we have what they call Approved Private Schools, which are approved by the state. Basically, they receive state and school district funding.

Mikell Nigro: I worked at an Approved Private School for 14 years, and that was strictly for students diagnosed with autism or a with PDD-NOS.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay, so this was the Timothy School?

Mikell Nigro: Correct.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay. That’s a really great school, right?

Mikell Nigro: It’s an excellent school. It’s an excellent school. Our biggest focus was working with students, and utilizing the TEACCH method.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay. And that’s out of North Carolina?

Mikell Nigro: It is.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay. What is the TEACCH method?

Mikell Nigro: The TEACCH method, we consider it structured teaching. It’s a way of structuring everything from the physical areas that our students are in, to making things visually clear for our students, to really decrease behaviors and anxiety.

Mikell Nigro: It’d be everything from the schedule that they access during the day, to individualize work systems that they’d work through. Even when working one-to-one with the students. It’s just a way of visually and physically structuring their environments, to make it clear what’s expected.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah, and I’ve heard the TEACCH method comes from the viewpoint of understanding the culture of autism. What it’s like in their world.

Mikell Nigro: Yeah.

Dr. Gwynette: Awesome. What kind of schooling did you have?

Mikell Nigro: My schooling, I went to, we have a university here called Westchester University. In this area, it is known for education. Back when I went to college, I specialized in special education. That’s what my certification is in.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay, excellent. You went to college for four years, then after college you did some extra schooling, right?

Mikell Nigro: Yeah, I did. I got my masters in curriculum and instruction. So, did that a few years later.

Dr. Gwynette: Awesome. Then you recently transitioned from the private school setting to public school. Right?

Mikell Nigro: I did.

Dr. Gwynette: Tell us about that.

Mikell Nigro: After 14 years at the Timothy School, I actually made a huge switch over to a school district. I actually work at Lower Merion School District, which is just outside the Philadelphia border. It’s a pretty large school district. We have two different high schools.

Mikell Nigro: I’m at Lower Merion High School. We have almost 1,500 students in that building, and pretty large special ed Department. When I made that true transition, I actually segued a little bit away from autism. I’m still working with students with autism, but I also now have students with ID… you name it-

Dr. Gwynette: Developmental delays and-

Mikell Nigro: Developmental delays.

Dr. Gwynette: … cerebral palsy, and seizures, and- [crosstalk 00:03:27].

Mikell Nigro: Yeah. Most medically fragile students in the district, are in our programs. So it’s a more life-skills based program. But all things that we were doing at the Timothy school, as well. It was a fairly easy transition in one regard, but also very different.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. So I was going to ask next, going back, it sounds like from a young age you knew you want to be a special education teacher. How did you first get interested in working with kids or young adults, with autism or special needs?

Mikell Nigro: I think I always liked working with kids. I had from 14, I’d worked at day camps. I enjoyed being with kids. Then I get into high school, and through a friend of mine I’d be friended one of the special ed teachers. To be honest, I didn’t even know that’s what she was. I just knew my friend went there for some math help, and that was it.

Mikell Nigro: I would sometimes go with him, to hang out in this classroom. And all of a sudden she asked me, if I would mind during one of my free periods, tutoring one of her students. She didn’t really explain it to me, but really he was a student that needed a little more typical peer interaction, and would benefit from a typical peer working with him on his academics.

Dr. Gwynette: Sure, because of the social piece?

Mikell Nigro: Correct. So I loved it. I thought he was hysterical, and I loved working with him. Through that process, I’m a senior at this point and I was now applying to schools. I knew I wanted to go into teaching. I just, what area? I just didn’t know. I guess I was talking with her about it, and she said, “You need to be a special ed teacher.” And I’m like, “What’s that?” I didn’t even know.

Dr. Gwynette: Even then, she saw that you had a talent for it.

Mikell Nigro: She was like, “You need to do special ed.” “Oh, what’s that?” She goes, “Listen, it’s a field and it’s growing by leaps and bounds. There will always be jobs.” I was like, “Well, I like the sound of that. I’ll do that.”

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. And there’s a big need out there, and you’re serving that need.

Mikell Nigro: I literally stumbled into it.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah, absolutely. So in case the audience doesn’t know, teachers work very, very hard. A lot of teachers say, they hardly even have time to go to the restroom during the day.

Mikell Nigro: Sometimes, that’s true.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. What would you say are some other challenging aspects, of the work that you do?

Mikell Nigro: I would say, I mean the paperwork is tough. I currently have a caseload, I’m a special ed teacher, but I’m a case manager. So there’s certain students, that I have to make sure all of their paperwork isn’t lined up. So the paperwork aspect of things: tracking the behavioral data, making sure the IEPs and the reevaluation reports are all lined up with the appropriate dates.

Mikell Nigro: Then you have just, I mean, I almost call it PR. You’re almost doing PR with these parents, of working with them. And you do work so closely with them, almost daily.

Dr. Gwynette: To get an alliance, and get on the same page. Yeah.

Mikell Nigro: Yeah. With all of it. There’s so many just aspects to it, and sometimes it just, it gets overwhelming. You’re like, “Okay, where do I start?”

Dr. Gwynette: Exactly. You got academics, you got behaviors. Then there’s also not only going what’s going on with one kid, but it’s also the mix of the kids in the classroom with the teachers.

Mikell Nigro: Right. And I’ll often have my class students that aren’t necessarily on my caseload, but I do have to be familiar with, what their academic goals and needs are. And how to best support them. And if they have a behavior plan, what am I doing to support that?

Mikell Nigro: Then, as well as the staff that I have working in my room. You need to make sure everybody’s on the same page. I can’t be with every student, every minute of the day. A lot of my students do have one-to-ones. So making sure they understand the expectation, what is needed throughout the day for that student.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay. Yeah, for those who don’t know, what’s a one-to-one.

Mikell Nigro: That would be an individual, an adult, that we assign to a specific student.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay. Are they a teacher, or not a teacher?

Mikell Nigro: They are not. They are not. All in our district, and not every district is like this, but in our district, our one-to-ones do need to have a bachelor’s degree. Usually they look for people that have some experience with students, with children. Hopefully with individuals with special needs, so that they have some understanding of what they’re coming into.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay, so they get it.

Mikell Nigro: Hopefully, yes.

Dr. Gwynette: But they’re not necessarily educators.

Mikell Nigro: Correct. Correct. And most of them get into it, because they love working with students with special needs.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. Speaking of that, can you tell us a little bit about what your favorite part of your job is?

Mikell Nigro: Oh, the kids. Literally, even on a Monday morning, after a weekend, and having to get up on Monday and come into work. My kids will come trickling into my room at 7:15 in the morning, and they’re so happy to be there. You can’t get upset with that. You’re like, “All right, let’s do this. Let’s go.”

Dr. Gwynette: Of course, that’s awesome that you have that bond with them. I worked with a lot of parents, and their kids of course. A lot of the parents have struggles in terms of, just many things. Managing their child’s life, and their behaviors and their academics. A lot of times they can be frustrated with things that are happening at the school, or just things are happening in the home.

Dr. Gwynette: I’ll tell them a quote from Peter Gerhardt, and I want to see your response to it. The quote is, “Anything good that ever happened in the world of autism, happened because of a parent.” Now you know Peter Gerhardt, I understand.

Mikell Nigro: I do.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. What do you think of that quote?

Mikell Nigro: I do know Peter Gerhardt. I’ve heard him speak in person a number of times, he’s fabulous. In terms of that quote, I just really think, these parents… I’m a parent, I’m a parent of two kids. I look at these parents, and I sometimes have to remind the staff that I work with, we’ve got it easy.

Mikell Nigro: We have these kids seven hours out of the day, we’re here to support them and give them the best that we can. These parents, they live this. The good, the bad, the ugly, they’ve got the hardest struggle of all of us. I have such empathy for these parents, and wherever they are in the process of with their child.

Mikell Nigro: I can’t necessarily always understand that. But the good that I see in those kids when they come in every day?

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. The progress?

Mikell Nigro: It directly reflects, on the families that are supporting them.

Dr. Gwynette: Exactly.

Mikell Nigro: So, I have nothing but love and support for these parents.

Dr. Gwynette: Absolutely.

Mikell Nigro: When I’m frustrated with whatever, I really do try to take a step back and think about what they’re living.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah, that’s great.

Mikell Nigro: I don’t know what that’s like, but I really try to understand that.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah, absolutely. That’s wonderful. So, a lot of times with working with parents, I talk to them about getting an IEP, or updating the IEP. But maybe we could start at the beginning, and just have you tell us what is an IEP?

Mikell Nigro: Okay, an IEP. That’s very elementary, but okay. An IEP is an individualized education plan. It is to be updated annually. I feel like one of the things with making my transition to this larger school district, that has a fabulous special education program, and that was one of the reasons I made that transition. They’re known for their special education. People move into this school district for special education.

Mikell Nigro: It is the fact that, you don’t get complacent with your IEPs. With the parent, and everything, we approach it as a draft always. Until we are sitting at the table, discussing it all together. Is looked at really from year-to-year, what is still appropriate, and what still needs to be changed?

Mikell Nigro: Trying to set the bar for these kids academically, socially, behaviorally, every year. And look a little bit to the future, which can be really hard to do.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. So if a parent were coming into their first IEP, or let’s say something was off-track at school behaviorally or academically, what would you recommend parents do before the IEP to get ready, or to be prepared?

Mikell Nigro: Read through it. I mean, I think that’s my biggest thing. Our protocol is, we always draft an IEP, and we send it home within three days in advance of the meeting. I would suggest that parents maybe ask for that, ask for a draft a few days ahead of time.

Dr. Gwynette: That’s great. Great advice.

Mikell Nigro: Because being able to sit at the table, and read through it, know what you’re looking at, and have questions ready. Because, as a teacher, we’re on a time constraint. But that doesn’t mean though, that we can’t come back together as a team, which we do often do. It shocks me sometimes, but we allot one hour for our IEP meetings. But, that doesn’t mean… We will adjourn the meeting, and get another in the calendars for the next few weeks, and come back together and finish it up.

Dr. Gwynette: That’s great. A couple of points there, just to emphasize for the audience. It sounds like parents can request a draft of the IEP beforehand, so they can read through and have questions ready in advance. That way, they don’t feel like they’re walking into an ambush or some kind of a surprise situation.

Mikell Nigro: Right.

Dr. Gwynette: Then if an hour is not enough time to complete that IEP process, the team can quickly convene again and finish it out very soon.

Mikell Nigro: Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay.

Mikell Nigro: I’ll sometimes say to the parents, I’ll send a draft home three, four days in advance and I’ll say to them, “Listen, this is really the meat and potatoes of it. But I’m going to review it again, before we meet.” I always find some things that come up again.

Mikell Nigro: But I’ll always, as a teacher, I put little tabs on the pages that I want to come back to. One of the things that we also do is, we’ll give the parents an outline, of what we’re going to follow throughout the meeting. Because it does get confusing with: we have an OT, we have a PT, we have a speech therapist.

Dr. Gwynette: So many people.

Mikell Nigro: So many layers that are a part of this. And just to try to keep us on track-

Dr. Gwynette: So, you’ve got them a itinerary for the meeting, so they can be guided.

Mikell Nigro: Yeah.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay.

Mikell Nigro: Yeah. I will come to the meeting, with that itinerary of what we’re going to do. But, I mean, that’s really what I do for the annual IEP. But we do sit down revisions with our families all the time. What we’ll do is, like I just had two meetings this week and it’s the first week of school. To talk about, what the year is going to look like for these students.

Mikell Nigro: We sat down as a team, discussed everything, the academics-

Dr. Gwynette: And that’s not the annual meetings, just like a little tweak or-

Mikell Nigro: Nope, just a revision. I will make sure that it’s noted, that we’re doing a revision and why we’re doing the revision, and summarize what that meeting was all about. After we sit down, if there are changes that are being made to their programming, here, we… and I’m assuming they do that as well in South Carolina. We will do what they call a NOREP, a Notice Of Recommended Educational Placement.

Mikell Nigro: That’ll just kind of list for the parents, what the placement is going to look like. Their academics, anything extra that we’re giving them, if it’s community work. Then the parents will sign off on it, that they are in agreement.

Dr. Gwynette: Gotcha.

Mikell Nigro: That way, it’s very clean.

Dr. Gwynette: Starting Project Rex in 2008, I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of kids come through our program. Maybe it’s starting at age five, age six. Now, 10 years later, we’re seeing a lot of them get close to adulthood.

Dr. Gwynette: Do you have any advice for how parents need to adapt their IEP, as the child’s entering the age of graduation, whether it be 18 or 21 when they leave high school? Because, I know a lot of times parents say it’s like falling off a cliff, with [inaudible 00:15:58] services for adults.

Mikell Nigro: Yeah, it’s, it’s scary. And I know, I often see my parents that come in from eighth grade and they’re now ninth grader, it’s a scary time for them. Because they’re now looking at this window, that’s not very big, of the time that’s left. And what do we need to do?

Mikell Nigro: So I think my biggest suggestion, is to know the resources that are out there. Know what that’s all about. I think also, I’m very lucky that my students, when they’re usually seniors, most of my students do choose to stay till 21. So they have those extra years at the end, which is great.

Dr. Gwynette: Where they’re still progressing academically, but they’re also served by the school district.

Mikell Nigro: We are still supporting those academics. But our big focus is, what do we need to do to get them ready for a workforce, a work site. So we will actually place our students out into the community, with a job coach who’s also a district employee. And get them out into placements in the community.

Dr. Gwynette: Is that a pretty successful approach?

Mikell Nigro: Extremely. Extremely. Again, it’s not a cookie cutter approach. We look at each student individually. But we will usually start with our students attending something that’s called the PAES Lab. It’s P-A-E-S, stands for Practical Assessment Exploration System. I think I have it right.

Mikell Nigro: It’s basically, a vocational assessment. It’s a hands-on vocational assessment, that our district does have. We run our students through that. It runs them through, I believe it’s over 200 different types of tasks in five different areas.

Dr. Gwynette: To try to find out what their strengths are, and what- [crosstalk 00:17:51].

Mikell Nigro: Find their strengths. Some are students, who think their strength might be data entry, we then find their strength is actually building things. But it runs through everything from consumer service, so those more food type of placements. To business marketing, pretty much anything you can imagine.

Mikell Nigro: We then look at what their strengths are, what did they like, because that’s what’s really most important. But also, how long does it take them to complete these tasks, to be employable. Because really, there’s a time to complete things to be an employable individual. So, we look at those.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah, and you mentioned, was it the Office of Vocational Rehab?

Mikell Nigro: Mm-hmm (positive).

Dr. Gwynette: Is that the name of it?

Mikell Nigro: Yeah.

Dr. Gwynette: And the job coaches who are going out in the community, are those coaches through the Office of Vocational Rehab, or through the district?

Mikell Nigro: They’re trough the district. But, so we do also stress to our parents the importance of registering with OVR, to make sure that after high school there is something to support them.

Mikell Nigro: So yeah, these community work placements have been extremely beneficial to our students. We have our students, so after they run through the PAES Lab, we actually have them go out onto the community. We have them everywhere from working in, maybe a gym, and doing cleaning and set up of areas. Hospital placements, so we have students actually going out to one of our local hospitals. They can do everything from being a greeter, and giving directions-

Dr. Gwynette: Great.

Mikell Nigro: … giving out parking vouchers, setting up the supplies in different outpatient rooms.

Dr. Gwynette: Sounds fun.

Mikell Nigro: We have students that actually work at a couple of universities. Some are in cafeteria-type placements. We’ve had some in media relations, that are actually downloading, filing things. They’re actually taking information from the computers, and making sure it’s in an order, and categorize and whatnot.

Dr. Gwynette: Perfect for maybe their interests, or skill set.

Mikell Nigro: Correct. Depending on the student. We have students that, absolutely not. That’s not what they want to do. They want to be in more of a social setting. So, we really look at that. We’re really lucky that we’re able to provide those things, and kind of see what fits.

Mikell Nigro: I want to say two years ago, I had two students who left our program and actually are now employed at Home Depot. They are with a program called Ken’s Crew, they’re in home Depot. They work 20 hours a week. One’s in the paint department. So, when the last I visited him, he gave me a bunch of paint samples so I could repaint a room.

Mikell Nigro: The other one is in the hardware department, so it’s a lot of stocking. But they have the social aspect too, and they love what they’re doing. My one student actually said to me, he said, “Mrs. Nigro, I get a paycheck.” He was so excited.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. Get a paycheck, and that self-esteem, you’re doing something that you enjoy. That’s so great. And hopefully, working towards being more independent all the time.

Mikell Nigro: Yeah. It’s amazing. It’s amazing.

Dr. Gwynette: That’s great. Well, thank you for sharing what your job is all about, and where your passion lies.

Dr. Gwynette: I wanted to ask you some other questions, that we usually ask most of the people we interview. They’re a lot easier and lighter. We usually are based out of Charleston, South Carolina. Of course, outside of Philadelphia today. But I need to ask you, Carolina or Clemson?

Mikell Nigro: Penn State.

Dr. Gwynette: Penn State. She threw me a curve ball. Okay. And what is your favorite food?

Mikell Nigro: Ooh, I’m in Philadelphia. So you’re going to have to go cheesesteak or pizza. Hello.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay. Excellent. And what’s the one food that you will never eat?

Mikell Nigro: Liver.

Dr. Gwynette: Liver. All right, don’t blame you for that.

Mikell Nigro: Liver.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. Well, cool. Well you’re also a member of the Project Rex family. Can you elaborate on that?

Mikell Nigro: I am lucky enough to be Dr. Gwynette’s baby sister.

Dr. Gwynette: That’s right. Yes. Sweet.

Mikell Nigro: But I’d like to say, I was in the field of autism first.

Dr. Gwynette: That’s true. That’s very true. Well thank you for doing this.

Mikell Nigro: Anytime. I was happy to do it. It was interesting to get interviewed by you.

Dr. Gwynette: Absolutely. We hope you’ll come back again, on the Autism News NetWORK.

Mikell Nigro: Will do. Maybe I’ll have to travel down South, and do an onsite interview.

Dr. Gwynette: When you’re in town, look us up. We’ll be glad to show you our studio-

Mikell Nigro: Absolutely.

Dr. Gwynette: … and have you back with us.

Mikell Nigro: Great, thanks.

Dr. Gwynette: Thanks so much. Bye-bye.

Dr. Gwynette: Hello. My name is Dr. Frampton Gwynette, from the Autism News NetWORK. We are on the road today in Audubon, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, for a very special interview with an expert in the area of autism. I’m here with Mikell Nigro.

Mikell Nigro: Expert, I love it.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. Well, thanks for doing this.

Mikell Nigro: Thanks for having me.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah, I’m going to just go ahead and fire away, if that’s all right?

Mikell Nigro: Do it.

Dr. Gwynette: Sure. So, what kind of work do you do?

Mikell Nigro: So I am a certified special education teacher. I have been in the field, this is my 19th year. In Pennsylvania, we have what they call Approved Private Schools, which are approved by the state. Basically, they receive state and school district funding.

Mikell Nigro: I worked at an Approved Private School for 14 years, and that was strictly for students diagnosed with autism or a with PDD-NOS.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay, so this was the Timothy School?

Mikell Nigro: Correct.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay. That’s a really great school, right?

Mikell Nigro: It’s an excellent school. It’s an excellent school. Our biggest focus was working with students, and utilizing the TEACCH method.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay. And that’s out of North Carolina?

Mikell Nigro: It is.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay. What is the TEACCH method?

Mikell Nigro: The TEACCH method, we consider it structured teaching. It’s a way of structuring everything from the physical areas that our students are in, to making things visually clear for our students, to really decrease behaviors and anxiety.

Mikell Nigro: It’d be everything from the schedule that they access during the day, to individualize work systems that they’d work through. Even when working one-to-one with the students. It’s just a way of visually and physically structuring their environments, to make it clear what’s expected.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah, and I’ve heard the TEACCH method comes from the viewpoint of understanding the culture of autism. What it’s like in their world.

Mikell Nigro: Yeah.

Dr. Gwynette: Awesome. What kind of schooling did you have?

Mikell Nigro: My schooling, I went to, we have a university here called Westchester University. In this area, it is known for education. Back when I went to college, I specialized in special education. That’s what my certification is in.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay, excellent. You went to college for four years, then after college you did some extra schooling, right?

Mikell Nigro: Yeah, I did. I got my masters in curriculum and instruction. So, did that a few years later.

Dr. Gwynette: Awesome. Then you recently transitioned from the private school setting to public school. Right?

Mikell Nigro: I did.

Dr. Gwynette: Tell us about that.

Mikell Nigro: After 14 years at the Timothy School, I actually made a huge switch over to a school district. I actually work at Lower Merion School District, which is just outside the Philadelphia border. It’s a pretty large school district. We have two different high schools.

Mikell Nigro: I’m at Lower Merion High School. We have almost 1,500 students in that building, and pretty large special ed Department. When I made that true transition, I actually segued a little bit away from autism. I’m still working with students with autism, but I also now have students with ID… you name it-

Dr. Gwynette: Developmental delays and-

Mikell Nigro: Developmental delays.

Dr. Gwynette: … cerebral palsy, and seizures, and- [crosstalk 00:03:27].

Mikell Nigro: Yeah. Most medically fragile students in the district, are in our programs. So it’s a more life-skills based program. But all things that we were doing at the Timothy school, as well. It was a fairly easy transition in one regard, but also very different.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. So I was going to ask next, going back, it sounds like from a young age you knew you want to be a special education teacher. How did you first get interested in working with kids or young adults, with autism or special needs?

Mikell Nigro: I think I always liked working with kids. I had from 14, I’d worked at day camps. I enjoyed being with kids. Then I get into high school, and through a friend of mine I’d be friended one of the special ed teachers. To be honest, I didn’t even know that’s what she was. I just knew my friend went there for some math help, and that was it.

Mikell Nigro: I would sometimes go with him, to hang out in this classroom. And all of a sudden she asked me, if I would mind during one of my free periods, tutoring one of her students. She didn’t really explain it to me, but really he was a student that needed a little more typical peer interaction, and would benefit from a typical peer working with him on his academics.

Dr. Gwynette: Sure, because of the social piece?

Mikell Nigro: Correct. So I loved it. I thought he was hysterical, and I loved working with him. Through that process, I’m a senior at this point and I was now applying to schools. I knew I wanted to go into teaching. I just, what area? I just didn’t know. I guess I was talking with her about it, and she said, “You need to be a special ed teacher.” And I’m like, “What’s that?” I didn’t even know.

Dr. Gwynette: Even then, she saw that you had a talent for it.

Mikell Nigro: She was like, “You need to do special ed.” “Oh, what’s that?” She goes, “Listen, it’s a field and it’s growing by leaps and bounds. There will always be jobs.” I was like, “Well, I like the sound of that. I’ll do that.”

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. And there’s a big need out there, and you’re serving that need.

Mikell Nigro: I literally stumbled into it.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah, absolutely. So in case the audience doesn’t know, teachers work very, very hard. A lot of teachers say, they hardly even have time to go to the restroom during the day.

Mikell Nigro: Sometimes, that’s true.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. What would you say are some other challenging aspects, of the work that you do?

Mikell Nigro: I would say, I mean the paperwork is tough. I currently have a caseload, I’m a special ed teacher, but I’m a case manager. So there’s certain students, that I have to make sure all of their paperwork isn’t lined up. So the paperwork aspect of things: tracking the behavioral data, making sure the IEPs and the reevaluation reports are all lined up with the appropriate dates.

Mikell Nigro: Then you have just, I mean, I almost call it PR. You’re almost doing PR with these parents, of working with them. And you do work so closely with them, almost daily.

Dr. Gwynette: To get an alliance, and get on the same page. Yeah.

Mikell Nigro: Yeah. With all of it. There’s so many just aspects to it, and sometimes it just, it gets overwhelming. You’re like, “Okay, where do I start?”

Dr. Gwynette: Exactly. You got academics, you got behaviors. Then there’s also not only going what’s going on with one kid, but it’s also the mix of the kids in the classroom with the teachers.

Mikell Nigro: Right. And I’ll often have my class students that aren’t necessarily on my caseload, but I do have to be familiar with, what their academic goals and needs are. And how to best support them. And if they have a behavior plan, what am I doing to support that?

Mikell Nigro: Then, as well as the staff that I have working in my room. You need to make sure everybody’s on the same page. I can’t be with every student, every minute of the day. A lot of my students do have one-to-ones. So making sure they understand the expectation, what is needed throughout the day for that student.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay. Yeah, for those who don’t know, what’s a one-to-one.

Mikell Nigro: That would be an individual, an adult, that we assign to a specific student.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay. Are they a teacher, or not a teacher?

Mikell Nigro: They are not. They are not. All in our district, and not every district is like this, but in our district, our one-to-ones do need to have a bachelor’s degree. Usually they look for people that have some experience with students, with children. Hopefully with individuals with special needs, so that they have some understanding of what they’re coming into.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay, so they get it.

Mikell Nigro: Hopefully, yes.

Dr. Gwynette: But they’re not necessarily educators.

Mikell Nigro: Correct. Correct. And most of them get into it, because they love working with students with special needs.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. Speaking of that, can you tell us a little bit about what your favorite part of your job is?

Mikell Nigro: Oh, the kids. Literally, even on a Monday morning, after a weekend, and having to get up on Monday and come into work. My kids will come trickling into my room at 7:15 in the morning, and they’re so happy to be there. You can’t get upset with that. You’re like, “All right, let’s do this. Let’s go.”

Dr. Gwynette: Of course, that’s awesome that you have that bond with them. I worked with a lot of parents, and their kids of course. A lot of the parents have struggles in terms of, just many things. Managing their child’s life, and their behaviors and their academics. A lot of times they can be frustrated with things that are happening at the school, or just things are happening in the home.

Dr. Gwynette: I’ll tell them a quote from Peter Gerhardt, and I want to see your response to it. The quote is, “Anything good that ever happened in the world of autism, happened because of a parent.” Now you know Peter Gerhardt, I understand.

Mikell Nigro: I do.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. What do you think of that quote?

Mikell Nigro: I do know Peter Gerhardt. I’ve heard him speak in person a number of times, he’s fabulous. In terms of that quote, I just really think, these parents… I’m a parent, I’m a parent of two kids. I look at these parents, and I sometimes have to remind the staff that I work with, we’ve got it easy.

Mikell Nigro: We have these kids seven hours out of the day, we’re here to support them and give them the best that we can. These parents, they live this. The good, the bad, the ugly, they’ve got the hardest struggle of all of us. I have such empathy for these parents, and wherever they are in the process of with their child.

Mikell Nigro: I can’t necessarily always understand that. But the good that I see in those kids when they come in every day?

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. The progress?

Mikell Nigro: It directly reflects, on the families that are supporting them.

Dr. Gwynette: Exactly.

Mikell Nigro: So, I have nothing but love and support for these parents.

Dr. Gwynette: Absolutely.

Mikell Nigro: When I’m frustrated with whatever, I really do try to take a step back and think about what they’re living.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah, that’s great.

Mikell Nigro: I don’t know what that’s like, but I really try to understand that.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah, absolutely. That’s wonderful. So, a lot of times with working with parents, I talk to them about getting an IEP, or updating the IEP. But maybe we could start at the beginning, and just have you tell us what is an IEP?

Mikell Nigro: Okay, an IEP. That’s very elementary, but okay. An IEP is an individualized education plan. It is to be updated annually. I feel like one of the things with making my transition to this larger school district, that has a fabulous special education program, and that was one of the reasons I made that transition. They’re known for their special education. People move into this school district for special education.

Mikell Nigro: It is the fact that, you don’t get complacent with your IEPs. With the parent, and everything, we approach it as a draft always. Until we are sitting at the table, discussing it all together. Is looked at really from year-to-year, what is still appropriate, and what still needs to be changed?

Mikell Nigro: Trying to set the bar for these kids academically, socially, behaviorally, every year. And look a little bit to the future, which can be really hard to do.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. So if a parent were coming into their first IEP, or let’s say something was off-track at school behaviorally or academically, what would you recommend parents do before the IEP to get ready, or to be prepared?

Mikell Nigro: Read through it. I mean, I think that’s my biggest thing. Our protocol is, we always draft an IEP, and we send it home within three days in advance of the meeting. I would suggest that parents maybe ask for that, ask for a draft a few days ahead of time.

Dr. Gwynette: That’s great. Great advice.

Mikell Nigro: Because being able to sit at the table, and read through it, know what you’re looking at, and have questions ready. Because, as a teacher, we’re on a time constraint. But that doesn’t mean though, that we can’t come back together as a team, which we do often do. It shocks me sometimes, but we allot one hour for our IEP meetings. But, that doesn’t mean… We will adjourn the meeting, and get another in the calendars for the next few weeks, and come back together and finish it up.

Dr. Gwynette: That’s great. A couple of points there, just to emphasize for the audience. It sounds like parents can request a draft of the IEP beforehand, so they can read through and have questions ready in advance. That way, they don’t feel like they’re walking into an ambush or some kind of a surprise situation.

Mikell Nigro: Right.

Dr. Gwynette: Then if an hour is not enough time to complete that IEP process, the team can quickly convene again and finish it out very soon.

Mikell Nigro: Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay.

Mikell Nigro: I’ll sometimes say to the parents, I’ll send a draft home three, four days in advance and I’ll say to them, “Listen, this is really the meat and potatoes of it. But I’m going to review it again, before we meet.” I always find some things that come up again.

Mikell Nigro: But I’ll always, as a teacher, I put little tabs on the pages that I want to come back to. One of the things that we also do is, we’ll give the parents an outline, of what we’re going to follow throughout the meeting. Because it does get confusing with: we have an OT, we have a PT, we have a speech therapist.

Dr. Gwynette: So many people.

Mikell Nigro: So many layers that are a part of this. And just to try to keep us on track-

Dr. Gwynette: So, you’ve got them a itinerary for the meeting, so they can be guided.

Mikell Nigro: Yeah.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay.

Mikell Nigro: Yeah. I will come to the meeting, with that itinerary of what we’re going to do. But, I mean, that’s really what I do for the annual IEP. But we do sit down revisions with our families all the time. What we’ll do is, like I just had two meetings this week and it’s the first week of school. To talk about, what the year is going to look like for these students.

Mikell Nigro: We sat down as a team, discussed everything, the academics-

Dr. Gwynette: And that’s not the annual meetings, just like a little tweak or-

Mikell Nigro: Nope, just a revision. I will make sure that it’s noted, that we’re doing a revision and why we’re doing the revision, and summarize what that meeting was all about. After we sit down, if there are changes that are being made to their programming, here, we… and I’m assuming they do that as well in South Carolina. We will do what they call a NOREP, a Notice Of Recommended Educational Placement.

Mikell Nigro: That’ll just kind of list for the parents, what the placement is going to look like. Their academics, anything extra that we’re giving them, if it’s community work. Then the parents will sign off on it, that they are in agreement.

Dr. Gwynette: Gotcha.

Mikell Nigro: That way, it’s very clean.

Dr. Gwynette: Starting Project Rex in 2008, I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of kids come through our program. Maybe it’s starting at age five, age six. Now, 10 years later, we’re seeing a lot of them get close to adulthood.

Dr. Gwynette: Do you have any advice for how parents need to adapt their IEP, as the child’s entering the age of graduation, whether it be 18 or 21 when they leave high school? Because, I know a lot of times parents say it’s like falling off a cliff, with [inaudible 00:15:58] services for adults.

Mikell Nigro: Yeah, it’s, it’s scary. And I know, I often see my parents that come in from eighth grade and they’re now ninth grader, it’s a scary time for them. Because they’re now looking at this window, that’s not very big, of the time that’s left. And what do we need to do?

Mikell Nigro: So I think my biggest suggestion, is to know the resources that are out there. Know what that’s all about. I think also, I’m very lucky that my students, when they’re usually seniors, most of my students do choose to stay till 21. So they have those extra years at the end, which is great.

Dr. Gwynette: Where they’re still progressing academically, but they’re also served by the school district.

Mikell Nigro: We are still supporting those academics. But our big focus is, what do we need to do to get them ready for a workforce, a work site. So we will actually place our students out into the community, with a job coach who’s also a district employee. And get them out into placements in the community.

Dr. Gwynette: Is that a pretty successful approach?

Mikell Nigro: Extremely. Extremely. Again, it’s not a cookie cutter approach. We look at each student individually. But we will usually start with our students attending something that’s called the PAES Lab. It’s P-A-E-S, stands for Practical Assessment Exploration System. I think I have it right.

Mikell Nigro: It’s basically, a vocational assessment. It’s a hands-on vocational assessment, that our district does have. We run our students through that. It runs them through, I believe it’s over 200 different types of tasks in five different areas.

Dr. Gwynette: To try to find out what their strengths are, and what- [crosstalk 00:17:51].

Mikell Nigro: Find their strengths. Some are students, who think their strength might be data entry, we then find their strength is actually building things. But it runs through everything from consumer service, so those more food type of placements. To business marketing, pretty much anything you can imagine.

Mikell Nigro: We then look at what their strengths are, what did they like, because that’s what’s really most important. But also, how long does it take them to complete these tasks, to be employable. Because really, there’s a time to complete things to be an employable individual. So, we look at those.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah, and you mentioned, was it the Office of Vocational Rehab?

Mikell Nigro: Mm-hmm (positive).

Dr. Gwynette: Is that the name of it?

Mikell Nigro: Yeah.

Dr. Gwynette: And the job coaches who are going out in the community, are those coaches through the Office of Vocational Rehab, or through the district?

Mikell Nigro: They’re trough the district. But, so we do also stress to our parents the importance of registering with OVR, to make sure that after high school there is something to support them.

Mikell Nigro: So yeah, these community work placements have been extremely beneficial to our students. We have our students, so after they run through the PAES Lab, we actually have them go out onto the community. We have them everywhere from working in, maybe a gym, and doing cleaning and set up of areas. Hospital placements, so we have students actually going out to one of our local hospitals. They can do everything from being a greeter, and giving directions-

Dr. Gwynette: Great.

Mikell Nigro: … giving out parking vouchers, setting up the supplies in different outpatient rooms.

Dr. Gwynette: Sounds fun.

Mikell Nigro: We have students that actually work at a couple of universities. Some are in cafeteria-type placements. We’ve had some in media relations, that are actually downloading, filing things. They’re actually taking information from the computers, and making sure it’s in an order, and categorize and whatnot.

Dr. Gwynette: Perfect for maybe their interests, or skill set.

Mikell Nigro: Correct. Depending on the student. We have students that, absolutely not. That’s not what they want to do. They want to be in more of a social setting. So, we really look at that. We’re really lucky that we’re able to provide those things, and kind of see what fits.

Mikell Nigro: I want to say two years ago, I had two students who left our program and actually are now employed at Home Depot. They are with a program called Ken’s Crew, they’re in home Depot. They work 20 hours a week. One’s in the paint department. So, when the last I visited him, he gave me a bunch of paint samples so I could repaint a room.

Mikell Nigro: The other one is in the hardware department, so it’s a lot of stocking. But they have the social aspect too, and they love what they’re doing. My one student actually said to me, he said, “Mrs. Nigro, I get a paycheck.” He was so excited.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. Get a paycheck, and that self-esteem, you’re doing something that you enjoy. That’s so great. And hopefully, working towards being more independent all the time.

Mikell Nigro: Yeah. It’s amazing. It’s amazing.

Dr. Gwynette: That’s great. Well, thank you for sharing what your job is all about, and where your passion lies.

Dr. Gwynette: I wanted to ask you some other questions, that we usually ask most of the people we interview. They’re a lot easier and lighter. We usually are based out of Charleston, South Carolina. Of course, outside of Philadelphia today. But I need to ask you, Carolina or Clemson?

Mikell Nigro: Penn State.

Dr. Gwynette: Penn State. She threw me a curve ball. Okay. And what is your favorite food?

Mikell Nigro: Ooh, I’m in Philadelphia. So you’re going to have to go cheesesteak or pizza. Hello.

Dr. Gwynette: Okay. Excellent. And what’s the one food that you will never eat?

Mikell Nigro: Liver.

Dr. Gwynette: Liver. All right, don’t blame you for that.

Mikell Nigro: Liver.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah. Well, cool. Well you’re also a member of the Project Rex family. Can you elaborate on that?

Mikell Nigro: I am lucky enough to be Dr. Gwynette’s baby sister.

Dr. Gwynette: That’s right. Yes. Sweet.

Mikell Nigro: But I’d like to say, I was in the field of autism first.

Dr. Gwynette: That’s true. That’s very true. Well thank you for doing this.

Mikell Nigro: Anytime. I was happy to do it. It was interesting to get interviewed by you.

Dr. Gwynette: Absolutely. We hope you’ll come back again, on the Autism News NetWORK.

Mikell Nigro: Will do. Maybe I’ll have to travel down South, and do an onsite interview.

Dr. Gwynette: When you’re in town, look us up. We’ll be glad to show you our studio-

Mikell Nigro: Absolutely.

Dr. Gwynette: … and have you back with us.

Mikell Nigro: Great, thanks.

Dr. Gwynette: Thanks so much. Bye-bye.

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