Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle
School, Silver Spring
“FOCUS, MY FRIEND,” Julie Mika says as
she asks students about the date, weather
and schedule for the day. Correct answers
are greeted with high-;ves and lots of
af;rmation: “That was awesome!”
Mika is a special education teacher
with Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School’s
Extensions Program, which serves students
with moderate to severe disabilities—
often autism—who also have a history
of aggressive or interfering behavior.
There were seven boys and six aides in
her classroom last year. Most students
communicate by pointing to pictures, some
use gestures or apps on iPads. When a
student begins to go into crisis, the staff
swoops in to intervene while keeping the
others on track. It’s a huge step toward
self-regulation when a student can point to
the quiet room as he begins to melt down to
indicate he needs some time out.
“In this program, it’s about little
victories,” says the 38-year-old Montgomery
County native who lives in Gaithersburg. A
week before she was scheduled to start law
school in 2002, Mika decided not to follow
in her father’s footsteps as an attorney—
but rather in her mother’s to become a
teacher. Her ;rst time in a special education
class, she felt a calling. “I was excited to
go to work. I thought about the kids when
I wasn’t there,” Mika says. “I felt like I had
something innate in me. I knew what to say
and do to connect on that personal level.”
Mika gives families her cellphone number
and is available after hours to answer
questions or to just listen to a student sing.
Jon Cadacio appreciated Mika attending his
14-year-old son M.J.’s ;rst Communion last
year and chaperoning her students at the
school dance last spring.
At school, Mika advocates for the
acceptance and inclusion of her students in
the cafeteria and assemblies, says Rodrick
Hobbs, assistant principal at Lee. Mika
coordinates the schoolwide Positive Behavior
Intervention and Supports program and has a
knack for motivating and mentoring struggling
students in the larger school community.
“Oftentimes with special programs, the
teacher is isolated on an island,” Hobbs
says. “But she’s everywhere.”
Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Bethesda
DAVID LOPILATO WANTS STUDENTS to know they can make a difference, whether it’s writing
for the school newspaper, organizing a student event or protesting for a cause.
“Today, high school students are so focused on what comes next that I get worried
they don’t make the most of their time here,” says the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School
anthropology and journalism teacher. “I want students to see if they can develop skills of
advocating for themselves and advocating for other people right now.”
Before moving to the D.C. area in 1998 to run a tech company, Lopilato was in a graduate
program in anthropology in New York and had taught at the college level. He missed the
classroom and taught Montgomery College courses, including some at Rockville and Thomas
S. Wootton high schools, before coming to B-CC seven years ago.
He’s been the adviser for the school newspaper, The Tattler, since his ;rst year at B-CC,
growing the staff from 12 to 50-plus students, and the publication from eight pages to two or
three dozen. Lopilato, 51, is known for pushing the young journalists to stretch themselves—
reporting beyond the walls of the school to cover national and international issues. “If we
didn’t tap into their global-mindedness, we’d be missing out,” says the Bethesda resident.
Lopilato’s anthropology students take on a social action project. Dylan Burgoon and Kai
Elwood-Dieu worked to get more recognition for the arts at B-CC. They secured $2,000 from the
PTA for frames and hooks to hang student art in a school hallway. The two recent graduates say
they gained valuable skills. “I’d never gone before a grant committee or developed a PowerPoint
to request a grant, or really sent emails in a professional manner,” Elwood-Dieu says.
At this age, students are able to effect change more than in college, Lopilato says.
“People don’t expect this kind of engagement from high school students. It gives them a
certain megaphone that I think they should use when they have it.”
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