FERNDALE — As a high school student, Sarah Struzik had a chance to work in a special education program as part of her community service requirement for the National Honor Society.
What started out as just a way to bolster her community service turned into so much more for Struzik.
“When I was assigned to perform some community service in the special education classroom in my district, I made a special connection with an autistic student in the classroom, and it felt so natural to me,” Struzik said. “My work with him felt so important, and it helped to see him being successful. I don’t see these students as disabled or broken, but individuals that have so much potential but need some assistance to reach that.
“I felt so at ease in that classroom. I knew it was what I was meant to be doing,” she said.
Struzik followed her new passion to a bachelor’s degree at Eastern Michigan University and a master’s degree at Michigan State University before winding up in the special education program at Ferndale High School.
On March 28, during The Arc of Oakland County’s Dove Awards, Struzik was awarded the Leonard Cercone Teacher of the Year Award for her work with special education students. The award honored Struzik for her dedication to enhancing students’ lives through development and classroom work.
“I never saw myself as exceptional, as I have been very blessed and lucky to do what I love to do in this world,” said Struzik, who has worked at FHS for six years. “I knew I wanted to be a special educator since I was a child, and so my passion gets to be my job, as well. I am lucky to just be able to work with these kids every day and help them, so to get an award, it is nice to be recognized for doing what I love.”
The Arc of Oakland County is an advocacy and support system for families in the county with special needs children. They provide attorney and advocacy services, as well as helping families with after-life decisions.
In the classroom, Struzik said the special education teachers are looking to not only give the students math and science knowledge, but also everyday life help.
“We teach them life-based skills, like doing things such as feeding, cooking, cleaning, laundry and daily living things you and I naturally do as independent adults,” she said. “We also do functioning academics, like money and time and basic site work recognition. They learn basic math functioning skills, computer skills and also work on community skills, so we go out to different places in the community and they can see how to be a typical community member by grocery shopping, going to the movies or bowling.”
Struzik also has helped get the rest of the school involved by pulling students from general education and having them work with the special education students on socialization skills.
The work she has done in the high school and getting everyone involved earned Struzik the Ferndale High School Teacher of the Year award.
“I am lucky to be part of such a strong staff at Ferndale High, as I have helped make a dramatic shift in the type of special education students in the high school,” Struzik said. “The other staff has been so supportive of my programs and students coming to the high school and the peer-to-peer help of pulling their kids to help support my kids. It feels wonderful to be supported by peers and I feel lucky and honored to be recognized.”
FHS Principal Lisa Williams said that ever since Struzik came to FHS in 2008, she has been very open and flexible in working with special education students, and her commitment has helped so many students.
“She has brought love, nurturing, passion, care and concern to this teaching staff — to not only her peer professionals that work under her, but to her students and their families,” Williams said. “She has done a phenomenal job of bridging the gap between the students in the high school program that transition to the post-high school program. She tailors her lessons to meet the needs of all her students, and she treats the kids like they are her own.
“If you had a student with special needs, you would want your child to be in her classroom.”
By giving students in the special education program the attention they need, Struzik said she has seen many of her students go from a place of fear to a place of hope as they learn everyday skills.
“Instead of fear, like the fear of the unknown I see initially, I see a complete switch of thinking that comes from a place of compassion and a place of understanding,” she said. “Seeing them being so capable and functioning, it may look a little different, but they are really becoming such a profound image for a lot of the general education students. Just seeing them achieve things and obtain goals not previously believed to be possible, it has been amazing for us educators.”