Opportunity of a lifetime

Published 6:30 am Wednesday, March 10, 2021

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Editor’s note: Because of the nature of the Horizons Program, students are not identified in photos

Opportunities can often be found in unsuspecting moments. These are opportunities that can benefit both sides of a situation.

That was certainly the case at Austin High School when Mark Winkels, Career and Technical Education Instructor, found an opportunity to introduce woodworking with students who normally may not have had the chance.

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When Winkels had a break in his second semester schedule, he didn’t hesitate to start working toward that opportunity for students in the Horizons Program, which offers students with specific challenges help to meet the world at their pace.

“At the 9-12 grade level, the Horizons Program at Austin High School works with families and students to develop the skills necessary to successfully complete high school and transition into post-secondary or workforce opportunities,” said Horizon Setting III Supervisor Joni Irvin. “The key to the success of the program is built on the development of strong relationships and individualizing each student’s educational opportunity.”

Winkels didn’t hesitate to meet those criteria.

“I currently taught the whole first semester, but then in the second semester I had the opportunity to get these kids involved a little bit of a different way,” Winkels said. “This can also help as a teacher and my teaching style.”

Teachers within the Horizons Program didn’t hesitate either. These were skills that could go directly to helping these students, who are often dealing with things like high anxiety.

“Our first hour we have executive functioning, which focuses on organization and time management and turns it into an experience to make it more meaningful,” said Krissy Frana, special education teacher for the Horizons Program. “A reflective experience for themselves.”

Both Winkels and Frana knew there would be challenges, but there was never any question that those challenges were to be taken up.

This was a chance to provide kids the chance to work with those missing skills, while at the same time maybe giving them a foot towards the future and possible avenues after their schooling was done.

A Horizons student fits the back to the bird house in process. Photo provided

The only difference in this instance was how the teaching would be provided and to that, there wasn’t much of a change.

“Just like every other student — take the time,” Winkels said. “The biggest difference was probably the extra support, extra build up. There was a whole lot more encouragement.”

And there was plenty of that; not just encouragement, but support as well.

“It was so important to give them that empowerment piece,” Frana said. “After they were told how to do it, they had the support of the staff to ensure they provided that support. Never quitting.”

The chance to get out of a desk situation and use their hands provided other benefits as well. It not only allowed them to be active and to test new horizons, it gave students an important sense of pride; something to tell others about.

“Students were asking, ‘can you take a picture,’” Frana said. “Kids had an overwhelming sense of pride. Their families were very happy the students got to go outside of their comfort zone.”

Winkels was able to find that part of the experience that helped his own teaching, bridging the advice he has for football players when he coaches to these students taking on new things and succeeding.

“I give these character talks pertaining to resilience,” Winkels said. “Being a good human being — it’s the little battles that you overcome that set you up for the biggest battles of life. It’s winning those little battles so you can win the day.

For both teachers, watching these students overcome was huge. As the pride of the students rose, so did that of the teachers. They were able to witness these students win the small battles that sometimes can seem so big.

“Seeing the students get it and keep going,” Frana said. “There was a lot of vulnerability in the first few days for the students. It’s easy for them to put up a tough front to avoid being let down. It sounds small, but really, for that classroom, it’s huge.”

In some ways though, there was something that may have defined all of it – a chance to work outside of the challenge and simply be another student. Winkels and Frana recognized that, both in themselves and the students.

“It was rewarding to give them a piece of positive experience,” Winkels said. “I like seeing kids learn.”

“They got excited and out of their comfort zone and out of the program,” Frana said. “It allowed them to have the typical high school experience a bit. It’s an escape and I think for the kids that was a huge part of it. The kids felt that little escape and I think they felt proud.”