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Teacher inspires
students to achieve


By Melissa Robinson
Contributing Editor 

  To be a productive member of teacher Vel DeGroff’s class at Ola Elementary School, you have to be smart, excited to learn, a team player and special, and that’s exactly what the class of third through fifth graders is, thanks to a dedicated and passionate teacher.

Students proudly display the flowers they made in Mrs. DeGroff's class as Ola Elementary. Back row l to r: Teacher Vel DeGroff, Mackenzie Lawrence and parapro Dody Morris. Front row: Jordan Robinson, RJ Potter, Tori Copeland, Caitlin Razzuri, Andrew Ontiveros, Jordy Branson and Nyla Elliott.                                   Special photo

  Every day, the eight students who make up DeGroff’s special education class are busy with a myriad of activities. Although the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic are covered, DeGroff realizes that there are also important life lessons to teach her students, such as how to order lunch at a restaurant, interact with customer service employees a retail store, shop for clothes in the correct size and for the right season, and the list goes on and on. For the educator who has been teaching special education for the past 25 years, the philosophy is simple—start teaching them life lessons now so they can build upon them in the future.

  On any given day, students might be learning science and nutrition, as well as teamwork and patience, by planting their own flowers in little plastic cups. On another day, they may incorporate consumer science by making salsa out of classroom-grown cilantro, or learning math and measurements by building birdhouses. A visit to DeGroff’s classroom is an explosion of colorful activities and personalities, and each student brings his or her own brand of intelligence, humor and talent.

  DeGroff takes the student on Community Based Learning field trips once or twice a month and sees it as a way for her to add real-life lessons to their academic curriculum.

  “We call it Community Based Instruction, and these field trips help the students develop usable skills,” said DeGroff. “We come up with the ideas on our own and we figure out what trips the kids need to go on based on what goals the students are working on. For instance, at Christmas time is we go to the dollar store and they have buy presents for their families, they can’t buy presents for themselves, and that’s the hard part. That teaches them some character traits, giving to others,” she said.

  She said a trip to a fast food restaurant assists the students with social skills, where they have to order their own food. That activity helps them develop early independent skills by interacting with an unfamiliar community worker, making sure they are communicating well. She said her class also buddies up with regular education classrooms and students, giving them valuable interactions with peers.

  One special trip occurred earlier this year when the kids loaded onto a school bus to drive past the home of their classmate who had to leave school due to a prolonged illness. That little girl has since passed, making the memory of that trip even more important to the students.

  “The students are all very nurturing to each other,” said Dody Morris, DeGroff’s substitute parapro. “And Ms. DeGroff leads by example.”

  In Henry County, different schools offer varying degrees of special education classes, and DeGroff’s is considered mild functioning.

  “Henry County does a great job of addressing the different levels and needs of special education,” said Morris

  After 25 years in special education, DeGroff admits that it’s more than just a job. Her passion stems from her own sister, Faye, who passed away several years ago after suffering a heart attack at age 43.

  “I do this because of my sister - she would have been in my class. She was a twin and the other twin died, and she was left with some brain damage,” said DeGroff. 

  She said her sister would have fallen through the cracks of a non-existent special education curriculum if it had not been for the passion and persistence of their mother, Eunice Stanton. She said she remembered the nights where her mother would work with her sister on schoolwork and other lessons so that she could attend school. She said her mother also encouraged her sister to join the track team at Stockbridge High School and fought for her daughter’s right to walk in the graduation ceremony.

  “Back then, teachers were not sympathetic and classmates could be so cruel,”

  Those memories are vivid and likely helped shape DeGroff into the compassionate and patient person she is today, with a big heart for some very special kids.

  She said growing up on a farm instilled in both DeGroff and her sister a strong work ethic and even though her sister couldn’t earn a traditional diploma, she went on to train and work as a nurse’s aide and eventually became a mail clerk at Dobbins Air Force Base. Those early lessons her mother taught her paid off, and her sister lived quite independently for many years.

  “So that’s why I do what I do, because I know what they can become,” said DeGroff. “I know many of my students have difficulty with learning and memory and recall, but I also know that they have great potential, and I want to help them tap into that.”

  “She expects these kids to do their very best, and she doesn’t allow them to make excuses for any laziness or not doing what they are capable of doing. She knows what they’re capable of,” said Morris.

  She said the most rewarding part is seeing how her students grow and change.

  “I love to see how they attain a greater sense of self-worth, because society doesn’t always give them that,” she said. “I have these guys from third through fifth grade and I love to see their progress. You don’t get confidence without accountability. We have expectations and we hold them accountable, and with that comes confidence,” said DeGroff.

  She said because of her mother’s diligence and tenacity, her sister succeeded, and it is with the same determination and tenacity that DeGroff  inspires and drives her own students to achieve. Although her students have varying degrees of function and skills sets, she manages to reach them collectively and individually with what seems like boundless energy and patience.

  “We have to think about who these children will be as adults, and we have to start preparing them now and help them realize that they can achieve so much,” she said.



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