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Class copies the real world

Published Oct. 6, 2005

Editor's note: Debbie Wichmanowski, who teaches at Marchman Vocational Center, was named Pasco County's Teacher of the Year on Friday. "Everything I do here is a team effort," she said, giving credit to academic teacher Sharon Mears and paraprofessionals Dianne Caruso and Pat Bower. After the awards ceremony, Wichmanowski returned to her classroom and was greeted by her students. "She's my favorite teacher," said student Danny Shackelford. We visited Wichmanowski's classroom on Monday to see why.

As Debbie Wichmanowski's students begin their weeklong project Monday morning, they have their minds on food.

The students, who are in the Trainable Mentally Handicapped program at Marchman Vocational Center, will search through a cookbook and choose a simple lunch they all can make for their project.

Each student has a chance to choose something, whether it be a grilled cheese sandwich, pigs in a blanket or a taco salad. Then the class votes, using the democratic process to pick one thing they can prepare together.

Jessica Miles has her heart set on making tacos. Stephanie Ragusa would prefer a tossed salad. In the end they compromise. When all the votes are tallied, taco salad wins out.

The next step is to prepare a grocery list to help them shop during a field trip to the supermarket Wednesday. Throughout this week, the students will study spelling words that relate to the recipe _ words like tomato, tortilla chips and lettuce. That will help them recognize items they need at the store. Finally, on Friday, they will cook and eat their finished product.

What Wichmanowski is teaching her students is called community-based instruction. By teaching her students the simple task of making themselves lunch and bringing them into the community to learn how to shop, she is preparing them to take care of themselves. Wichmanowski hopes all her students will be able to get a job and one day live on their own.

"Years ago these kids were learning skills that meant nothing to them," Wichmanowski said. "They'd be learning how to put pegs in a peg board or sort things to improve their motor skills, but it wasn't something they could transfer into real-life experiences. If you're going to have them sort something, let it be silverware or laundry _ something they can use."

Last year Wichmanowski started a payroll program, where students punch a time clock and get paid for their hours spent at school. The program, a good example of community-based instruction, helps students understand the work world.

Every two weeks, the students are issued "paychecks" that show their gross pay, federal income tax and Social Security. The checks can be cashed for play money at the classroom bank. Although Wichmanowski prefers to use real money whenever possible, it is difficult with this program, she said, "because we're dealing with hundreds of dollars here."

If students forget to punch in or out, they don't get paid, Wichmanowski said, "just like in the real world."

The students then can deposit money into "savings accounts" or "checking accounts." Not only do students learn how to endorse their checks and fill out deposit slips, they also learn the concept of paying for services rendered.

When field trip time comes, students must pay Wichmanowski the $3 taxi fare for driving them. If they want to play bingo or see a movie at school on Friday, that will cost $5. Popcorn and a drink at the school concession stand will cost another dollar or two.

"At first all the kids were real cheap _ they put everything into their savings accounts," said Wichmanowski. "Then when it came time to see a movie or play bingo, they couldn't because they didn't have enough money. They learned real fast to keep enough money out to spend. Now it's really working. We're trying to follow through with this at home, too, by having them pay their parents room and board."

Some of Wichmanowski's students get on-the-job training at Marchman, where one student works in the culinary arts department, or at nearby Calusa Elementary, where students work in the cafeteria, clean up classrooms or assist the plant manager.

What starts out in Wichmanowski's classroom often transfers to the real world. In December the students in the Trainable Mentally Handicapped program held their annual craft fair. Lori Brown, a 1993 graduate of the program, came for a visit.

"Lori has a job now at Chick-Fil-A and was there to buy a few things," Wichmanowski said.

"She had her own checking account and she wrote out her own check. I felt so proud of her _ it was so neat!"