Kiara Jones is learning how to analyze data. But the 8-year-old is not using fancy software on a computer.
She has a tactile board in front of her with the names of classmates and information on when they were in class, along with a letter she can touch to find out what data corresponds with each student.
Kiara is visually impaired, but her teachers at River Terrace Education Campus in Northeast Washington say she is able to use her strong memory skills to answer math and reading questions.
River Terrace serves 135 students, including Kiara, who have severe physical or intellectual disabilities.
Once a regular elementary school, River Terrace sits near the Anacostia River and was at the center of a contentious debate five years ago over whether to save the community school or sell the building to a developer.
Instead, D.C. Public Schools remodeled the building into a state-of-the-art school for special-education students. There were already two special-education schools in the city, but they were run-down and did not comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The schools were shut down when River Terrace opened in 2015.
At his first visit to the school Wednesday, D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson commended the decision to build the school.
“We saw every student engaged,” Wilson said. “I was very impressed with what I saw here.”
Many school systems, including DCPS, enroll special-education students in community schools, not in separate classrooms or buildings. But the principal of River Terrace said that wouldn’t be fair to her students.
Some students cannot talk. Others are in wheelchairs. Some eat their meals through feeding tubes.
“They are better served here,” said Principal Aimeé Cepeda Pressley.
An eighth-grade student at River Terrace, for example, is in a wheelchair and cannot speak. During Wilson’s visit, the student’s instructional aide, Derrick Holden, was teaching her vocabulary words by holding a picture cutout of a fish against a black poster. When Holden asked her to identify the fish, she would look at it.
Holden will later be able to tell if she can recognize the meaning of “fish” by putting the same picture next to a picture of another animal. If she looks at the fish, that proves she understands the word.
If that student were in a conventional middle school classroom with up to 30 other students, she would be “an outlier,” said Cepeda Pressley.
“The reality is the teacher may not have the opportunity to spend as much time with a student such as mine,” she said. “Because our classroom sizes are smaller and we have more support in the classroom, we are able to give the student that one-on-one instruction.”
The school also has a swimming pool with multiple ramps and fountains that shower students with water. Most of the students use the pool during their physical education classes.
In a science class Wilson visited, the teacher explained the purpose of DNA as the students created a model of a DNA sequence using toothpicks, marshmallows and licorice ropes.
The school wants students to live independently. So in addition to math, science and reading, students also learn to cook, do laundry and navigate the District using public transit.
The school also offers a workforce development program. Students who finish high school can transition into the workforce program, which teaches skills to go into hospitality, horticulture or medical service careers. One classroom has an area with a replica of a hotel room, with a bed fitted with white linens, nightstands and a dresser.
So far, placing students in jobs has been a challenge.
Cepeda Pressley said most employers want students with high school degrees, which her students do not receive. Instead, they get a certification of completion.
“I would like more employers to be receptive to hiring students such as ours,” she said. “Time and time again they prove their worth and their value and how dedicated they are when they are given the opportunity.”