Colleen Collins UCAN Academy School Educator
“The kids keep you here,” replies a determined Colleen Collins when asked why she chooses to teach at UCAN Academy. Colleen is an elementary school educator who started working at the school four years ago. “Students at UCAN Academy come from low economic backgrounds, have disabilities and often have a very rough home life – all of which results in various behavioral issues. We as teachers help treat these behaviors and work to help each student become a functioning person of society.”
UCAN Academy is an innovative kindergarten through twelfth grade year-round therapeutic day school, and one of the largest and most recognized in the area. A special education curriculum is used by experienced educators to help students who have had difficulties in previous school settings and who benefit from smaller, more individualized classroom settings. The Academy utilizes state of the art classrooms with SMART Boards, a computer-based reading curriculum, and new computer labs to empower students to interface with the latest technology. The school is also equipped with more basic facilities like a washer and dryer for student use, a cafeteria where breakfast and lunch is served, and bathrooms with showers. As such, it serves as a “home away from home” for many who do not have access to such facilities otherwise.
An eighth grade student in Colleen’s class explains why he enjoys coming to the Academy: “Miss Collins is nice and she’s my buddy. She has helped me get better at math and now it’s my favorite subject.” He is excited about the renovation of the gym that recently took place courtesy of the Chicago Bulls’ fitness program EnergizaBulls. “Before we couldn’t play basketball but now we can, so it’s cool!”
Social workers, teachers and teaching assistants all work together to help students who attend the Academy. Colleen explains that one reason the school is able to successfully work with children of varying academic levels is by keeping teacher-student ratios low, which makes it easier to give individual attention to each student and to individualize teaching plans. When asked about the kind of impact that teachers have upon students, Colleen explains that, “All of our students have learned what ‘no’ means and how structure is very important in their lives. They buy into the rewards they get when they listen, and because the classrooms are small, we see more consistent behavior.” Individual Education Plans are developed in collaboration with parents and other advisors to ensure that each child receives the most effective instruction. Despite all this, for some students, simple things like sending assignments home can become impossible. “Homework is hard for these kids, for some parents can’t read or write. In some homes, there really is no one to help these kids with their school work.”
Colleen recalls a 4th grade girl who came to the Academy four years ago. “She was not interested in being in a classroom with others, and would often show behaviors that begged for attention. Over time the Academy provided her with structure, and she realized that she had to follow the rules. She changed her behavior and became interested in the academics of each day. Presently she is being reintegrated as an 8th grader into a public school system and is an example for others. She was one of my first students, and to see the dramatic change in her four years later – it makes it worth it all.”
Christy Miller, UCAN Academy Elementary Program Director, remembers when Colleen first came to the Academy as a student teacher. “We started together because I was a teacher at that time. I remember how hard she worked.” Christy also explained that Colleen involves herself in all aspects of the Academy, whether it be the Spirit Squad or creating a haunted house for Halloween. “She wants to make sure that the kids experience everything – she is a teacher you can always count upon.”
Colleen summed up her thoughts by saying, “UCAN Academy is one of the best places to teach. Everyone looks out for each other and we have each other’s backs. There is constant collaboration, because we all have one common goal: to help these kids out.”