As April comes to its close, so does National Autism Awareness Month for the students and teachers at Sierra School of Alhambra.
Here, young people of all learning abilities are encouraged to meet their full potential.
And that’s a big mission on a campus that serves students ages 8 through 22, from the Los Angeles Unified School District and other school districts in the San Gabriel Valley.
The students at Sierra have learning, behavioral or social/emotional challenges that benefit from a structured setting rather than the open form of a large, mainstream public school.
But that doesn’t make the learning any less relevant or timely. In fact, it’s the very interaction with the environment around them that for teachers and their students become a path toward learning and emotional awareness.
“They are in an environment where they can feel safe and feel supported and know that they have not just one teacher in the classroom to help but plenty of adults to guide them and work through any issues that they have, whether that be academic or behavior,” said Sierra School of Alhambra director, Stephanie Helguera.
To that end, April’s theme was environmentalism. So on Friday, students and staff walked to Story Park in Alhambra as part of their community-based instruction to gather recyclables and clean up trash.
To encourage creativity, students recycled newspapers to make a piñata.
In the process, the idea was to learn good stewardship of the land.
According to Autism Specialty Group, outdoor activity promotes cognitive function, sensory development, social skills, attention span, and overall sense of well-being.
It’s all part of building an academically, socially and emotionally aware curriculum at the private school, which the program centers on self-esteem to improve students’ self-image as they navigate common, everyday stressors.
“Our goal for every student here on campus is to make them as independent as possible,” Helguera added.
The staff consists of special education teachers, counselors and a speech and occupational therapist. Programs are split to serve the needs of each student, ranging from a general education curriculum to programs that cater to youngsters with autism.
Helguera has been with the Sierra school since 2000, when she started as a teacher’s aid. Since starting her career with the campus, she has earned master’s degree in psychology. She said that the holistic approaches offered on campus are the reasons she has stayed for more than years.
According to a 2023 report by Centers for Disease Control’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, one in 36 children identified on autism spectrum.
Students on the autism spectrum are diverse in their experiences, backgrounds and abilities, so the Sierra School provides programs that engage outside of the classroom.
No matter the level of learning that a student is experiencing, three days of the week all the classes engage together in an outdoor curriculum.
“It’s really important, I think, to teach kids that differences are OK,” Helguera said. “It’s really good for our students that are on Gen Ed curriculum to learn about other kids and know they’re programmed so that they understand that these are differences everybody has, and that they’re always going to come across people that different than them.”