Stories From Westtown-Thornbury
Westtown-Thornbury Welcomes New Principal
Dr. Shawn Cruice
The West Chester Area School District welcomes Dr. Shawn Cruice as the new principal of Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School. Dr. Cruice may be new to Westtown-Thornbury, but he is no stranger to the district, having spent the last seven years as an assistant principal at Peirce Middle School. He also taught math at Stetson Middle School, in addition to stints at Owen J. Roberts, Octorara, and Unionville-Chadsford School District.
The 2020-21 school year marks Dr. Cruice's 18th year in education. His educational philosophy centers around the idea that learning should be active, not passive.
"The primary purpose of education is to inspire students to find their passion and to provide them with the right tools to reach their full potential. All students will learn when taught in a welcoming environment where students feel safe, the curriculum is differentiated to meet individual needs, and instruction is engaging.
Dr. Cruice looks forward to building a community within Westtown-Thornbury that focuses on both relationships and academic excellence.
"The teachers are incredibly dedicated and passionate about student learning. In addition, I have found the parents to be very welcoming and supportive while the students have been nothing but kind and respectful."
What does Dr. Cuice love the most about working with children?
"I love the innocence of children and the opportunity to be another positive role model in their lives."
Dr. Cruice grew up in West Chester and met his wife while attending West Chester East High School. The couple currently resides in Downingtown, with their three children, Kaitlin, Jack, Patrick, and their Golden Retriever, Max. In his spare time, Dr. Cruice likes to golf and spend time at the Jersey Shore and Delaware beaches.
PA Education Secretary “Stops” By Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School
Fourth-grade students at Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School had a special visitor stop by one of their Zoom sessions this past week - Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera.
The students gathered online on May 27 for a virtual tour of Harrisburg since they were unable to visit the state capitol in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The students didn't know that the school's principal, Dr. Nora Wheeler, had accepted an invitation to be a stop on Secretary Pedro Rivera's virtual "Schools That Teach" tour.
"We used the opportunity with Secretary Rivera to highlight the district response to shifting our school system to the virtual world almost overnight," said Dr. Wheeler. "I could not pass on the chance to celebrate all that our teachers and students have done the last few months."
Students had the opportunity to learn more about Secretary Rivera during a question and answer session, including his role as a working parent with a son in high school and daughter in elementary school. Before the meeting ended, he reminded the rising 5th Graders of their role as school leaders next year.
Fourth-grade teacher Ashley Melanson also had a chance to speak with Secretary Rivera. Along with the help of colleagues Peter Altland and Rene Rodriguez, she presented a short synopsis of how West Chester Area School District teachers and administrators invested significant professional learning hours to make remote learning as meaningful as possible for students. Melanson touched on some creative interdisciplinary curricular projects and the different ways teachers have cared for students' social and emotional needs, including daily class meetings, theme days, and birthday celebrations.
While the last few months of the school year have been challenging for school leaders, teachers, students, and parents, there have also been great opportunities and unseen benefits along the way.
"While Wednesday's virtual tour is not the same as going on a school trip, I believe our students will remember the time with Secretary Rivera for years to come," said Dr. Wheeler.
Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School Completes Kindness Challenge
Will Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School be named the Kindest School in America? Students at the school recently took part in the "Kindness Ninja" challenge through Think Kindness, a non-profit organization whose mission is to inspire measurable acts of kindness in schools and communities around the world.
Kelley Perotti from Think Kindness paid a visit to the school in late February and presented students with a challenge - document 5,000 acts of kindness in just 15 days. Each student received a "Kindness is Awesome” journal which contained ten blank spaces to fill up with random acts of kindness. Perotti challenged the students to fill up as many journals as possible.
"You have the power, just with kindness, to change the course of someone's life," Perotti told the students. "Hopefully, you will go beyond 5,000 acts of kindness."
The organization monitors schools throughout the year that are participating in the Kindness Challenge and at the end of the year, they will select the "Kindest School in America." The winning school will receive special recognition on their website and receive a banner declaring them the "Kindest School in America."
In addition to completing random acts of kindness during the 15-day challenge, students were also encouraged to donate new or gently used shoes that Think Kindness sends to orphans in Kenya.
Perotti explained to the students that the orphans have very little to call their own and that they could not attend school without shoes - a concept that many of the students had a hard time grasping.
Not only did the students complete their “Kindness is Awesome” journal challenge, but they also collected eight large bags of new and gently used shoes to send to the orphanage in Kenya.
The mission of Think Kindness has evolved over the years.
"Initially, ten years ago, Think Kindness founder, Brian Williams started going into schools, and we were just doing the shoe drive," said Perotti. "Then we realized that there were all of these anti-bullying things coming in and we thought instead of putting the word 'bullying' into the assemblies, we took it out and just thought if we overpower it with a positive message and improve kindness, the bullying would disappear."
The organization reports that schools have noticed a decrease in bully-related incidences after completing the Kindness Challenge.
Williams is a 4th-degree black belt in martial arts. His instructor taught him "kindness is the ultimate form of self-defense." Those words inspired him to challenge others to become Kindness Ninjas.
For more information on the Kindness Ninja challenge, visit www.thinkkindness.org.
Mobile Ag Lab Visits Westtown-Thornbury
The parking lot at Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School was recently home to the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau's Mobile Agriculture Education Science Lab. The "Ag Lab" was parked at the school during the week of January 22 providing students the opportunity to learn about farming, food, fiber, and the environment in a fun, hands-on manner.
The Ag Lab is a 40-foot trailer complete with 12 workstations where students conduct hands-on science experiments that teach a lesson in agriculture. Kindergarten students learned about pizza making, which begins long before the pizza show. For example, they discovered that the flour for the dough comes from wheat seeds; the sauce is made from tomatoes; cheese requires milk, which comes from cows, and so on.
Fifth-grade students performed an experiment that required them to form a hypothesis. Their task was to determine if glue made from milk can compete with a glue that is made from synthetic materials. Each of the grade levels had a turn in the Ag Lab performing other various experiments.
"With fewer children having a tie to farming, we created the Ag Lab program to help teachers educate more students about the importance of agriculture," said Rick Ebert, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
The Ag Lab lessons are coordinated with each of the teachers and are led by a certified teacher that travels with the lab. The lab is stocked with all of the material and supplies needed for the experiments.
The lessons meet Pennsylvania Department of Education Science & Technology and Environment & Ecology Standards and are endorsed by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Each science experiment is designed to emphasize a different aspect of agriculture, including Pennsylvania's primary commodities, the environment, biotechnology, food, and fiber.
Author Jimmy Curran Teaches Students to Accept Differences
You could've heard a pin drop inside the classrooms at Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School as students sat side by side on the carpet, listening intently, as author Jimmy Curran read his book, Will, the One-Winged Eagle. Like most authors, Curran has a message to deliver, and that message is "people with disabilities are very able and capable of doing many things."
The 28-year-old Curran has spent his entire life in a wheelchair. He has Spinal Muscular Atrophy type 2, a condition that affects the part of the nervous system that controls muscle movement. However, it hasn't slowed him down. In fact, Curran touts quite the list of accomplishments - graduating with honors from Temple University, completing internships in New York City and Washington, D.C., working full-time for a major health insurance company, and self-publishing Will, the One-Winged Eagle. He also created a clothing line called “disABLE.”
Curran moved from classroom to classroom sharing his book with students. Will the One-Winged Eagle teaches kids self-acceptance, acceptance of people with disabilities and other differences, as well as persistence in the face of adversity. The book was illustrated by Kris Napper, Curran's friend who also has Spinal Muscular Atrophy type 2.
Will was born with only one wing, and his fellow eagles always point out his differences and tell him he isn't capable of much. Throughout the story, Will questions if he will ever be able to fly or collect food. Thanks to persistence and perseverance, Will proves his fellow eagles wrong, and shows them that despite his differences he is capable just like them.
Curran was inspired to write his book after the birth of his nephew.
"I thought it was an important lesson for him to learn," said Curran. "It's important for everyone to learn that it is okay to be different."
Following the story, Curran asked the students if they had any questions. One student asked what his biggest challenge has been in life.
"Probably teaching my employer about my disability and how to deal with it. I went on 30 job interviews before I got one offer."
When asked what they loved most about the book, one first-grade student replied, "I like how Will was upset in the beginning but then he figures out that disabilities don't always let you down. Don't look at your disability; look at what you can do."
3rd-grader Knows No Boundaries
Brian Smalls (left), Lauren Gilliano, Tim Celfo, Jake Wainstein, Ryan Walter
“He’s awesome. He’s a bugger. He’s funny. He’s smart. He’s my world.” Dana Wainstein pauses, clearly filling up with pride. Wainstein is talking about her son, Jake, a third-grader at Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School. When it comes to Jake, Wainstein has a lot to be proud of.
Jake recently performed at the school’s orchestra concert, accurately plucking the strings of his cello, creating melodic sounds that some never thought he could produce. Jake was born with Down Syndrome and has inspired many of his classmates as he’s worked hard to meet milestones that many of them take for granted.
For Jake, school is not just about receiving an education. It is about being a respected, valued member of a tight-knit school community through meaningful inclusion. When Jake expressed an interest this year in playing the cello Wainstein had her doubts.
"Jake’s aide, Brian Smalls, came to me one day and said 'I think he can do it,'" said Wainstein. "Jake really loved when his older sister Olivia played the cello, so I thought about it and said 'Okay, let's do it!'"
Inspired by Jake's excitement to learn the cello, Westtown-Thornbury special education teachers Lauren Gilliano and Ryan Walter joined with Smalls and string teacher Tim Celfo to devise a system to help Jake learn the instrument.
"My teaching approach with Jake is definitely more hands-on than some of my other string students," said Celfo. "I'm really impressed with his abilities. He's plucking the right strings and hitting the right notes. Music is so therapeutic. Once Jake finishes a piece he looks so proud. His fellow students are super supportive. They all pat him on the back and say 'Good job, Jake!'"
The concept of meaningful inclusion allows special education students to spend a good portion of their day learning alongside their peers in general education classrooms, which helps all students to thrive and learn. Implementing inclusive practices has been one of the main goals for special education in the West Chester Area School District.
The district currently educates approximately 1,500 special education students with support services offered in its sixteen schools and a combination of specialized programs outside of the district.
Gilliano has made it her mission for the past six years to push the boundaries to create an even greater inclusive environment for special education students at the school.
She and Walter conduct school-wide activities and lessons that Gilliano said allow students to ask questions that help them better understand children with disabilities.
"It helps them to see that while things may be more difficult for students like Jake, he is capable of doing things as you or I would. I think it has really helped the school community as a whole. Everyone loves to celebrate these kids."
“The most important thing is for Jake to be with his peers, to feel included, to be a part of the community,” said Walter. “That is something that we really focus on.”
Jake spends part of his school day with Gilliano, Walter, and paraprofessional Brian Smalls. The three of them work seamlessly together to ensure that he, and other special education students, gain the knowledge and supports needed to succeed in their general education classroom.
He follows an academic schedule that includes reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and specials. Gilliano and Walter co-teach to prepare Jake for the lessons he learns in Maureen Isola's general education classroom.
For instance, Gilliano will work on sight words with Jake who mainly communicates through sign language. She teaches him the words in sign language and helps him master the words before crossing over to reading instruction.
"A lot of science and social studies are pre-taught as well before Jake goes to Mrs. Isola's classroom," said Gilliano. "Once he is there he uses sign language and his assistive technology device to participate in things that are happening in the classroom. That alone has helped Jake's self-esteem. Jake has grown so much socially, emotionally, and academically since he started kindergarten here."
"He takes so much pride in his work," said Smalls. "He loves showing off his accomplishments. I'm so proud of him. He's like my little brother. I really enjoy working with him."
With the support of his team at Westtown-Thornbury, the possibilities for Jake are endless.
“If you ask him, Jake will tell you he wants to be a photographer,” said Smalls.
Dana Wainstein, who has three other children in the WCASD, is extremely active in the Chester County Down Syndrome Interest Support Group. What is the crucial thing she wants people to know about her son and other children like him?
"Presume confidence; presume intelligence. I think that is a rule that we need to follow across the board for children with disabilities. They might learn differently, but once they get it, they get it."
“I always say that something is only a disability if you allow it to be,” said Gilliano. “We don't see disabilities; we only see capabilities."
Westtown-Thornbury Special Education Teacher Honored
Lauren and Anthony Gilliano Lauren Gilliano and her support team Lauren Gilliano with Ann & Grace McKenzie
Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School Special Education Teacher Honored
Most teachers enter the education field to make a difference - and that is exactly what Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School special education teacher Lauren Gilliano does for her students. Because of her dedication, Gilliano was named the 2017 recipient of the Chester County Down Syndrome Interest Group's (CCDSIG) Community Partner Recognition Award.
"I'm delighted that Lauren Gilliano received this award," said Ann McKenzie, CCDSIG Board member and parent of one of Gilliano's students. "She's a teacher and an advocate all day, every day, taking the time to listen and get to know each student and what makes them an individual. We value the joy and passion she brings to our daughter's school."
Gilliano received the award at CCDSIG's annual Family Run Day & Fun Day, which was held October 8, at West Goshen Community Park. The event is the largest fundraiser for the non-profit organization and featured a 5k run and Fun Run/Dash. This year also marked CCDSIG’s 17th annual Buddy Walk, which promotes the inclusion and awareness of people with Down syndrome.
Mrs. Gilliano, a resident of Conshohocken, Montgomery County, has been a special education teacher at Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School in the West Chester Area School District for the past six years. She holds a dual certification in special education and elementary education from Millersville University and is currently pursuing her master's degree through Neumann University.
Education runs in her family. Gilliano's mother, Beth Johnson has been teaching special education at Penn Wood Elementary School (WCASD) for the last 18 years.
"When I was little, my mom would come home from work every day and light up as she told me stories about her students," said Gilliano. "I could both see and feel the passion that she had for the work that she was doing with her special education students. She would tell me that we are all bound for greatness, but it takes the right person to bring it out of you. I knew one day that I too could be that person to someone. So now as a teacher, I will forever be that "person" that will capture and embrace the greatness in students of all ability levels."
"I am extremely humbled to be chosen for this award, and although it has my name attached to it, it takes an army to support and foster growth in all children," added Gilliano. "I am so lucky to work with people every day who see the potential in not just my students, but all students, so if I could, I would give a piece of this award to each and every one of my colleagues and families."
The Chester County Down Syndrome Interest Group (CCDSIG) is a nonprofit organization that began in 1998 and provides resources and support to local families touched by Down syndrome. To learn more, visit www.ccdsi.org.