March 8, 2019
There is a saying that “If you’ve met one child with Autism, you’ve met one child with Autism.” This rings true for Exceptional Student Education teacher Sarojanie “Ro” Samlal who believes that each child with Autism Spectrum Disorder has unique symptoms and solutions.
Samlal’s wish to learn more about children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) just came true as she prevailed over 107 other candidates for the last slot of the last year of a five year grant which pays full tuition for a Master’s degree from Florida International University.
“According to the Center for Disease Control, there has been a sharp increase in children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder from 1 in 166 in 2004 to 1 in 59 in 2016 in the U.S. The CDC acknowledges that these numbers still reflect an undercount of Autism’s true prevalence,” says Samlal.
FIU’s Project OPERATE (Online Preparation of Educators and Researchers in Autism who Teach Effectively) is an accelerated 12-month Master’s degree program that was born from the needs of ESE teachers who have little or no specific training on ASD.
Participants earn a Master of Science degree in Special Education, leading to the State of Florida endorsement in ASD. Nine teachers have been chosen to participate in Project OPERATE statewide each of the five years of the grant.
Samlal has been a fixture at Shadeville Elementary School working with ESE children for the past 14 years. Currently she has a self-contained classroom of children ages 9 to 12 with varying exceptionalities including Autism, Down syndrome, Intellectual Disabilities, and Other Health Impairments (OHI).
“Ro is an incredible advocate for our ESE students, always wanting to learn more about them as individuals while including their parents and other teachers. She was accepted to participate in Project OPERATE after an extensive application process, a day of grueling interviews, and a field of extremely qualified competitors,” says Tanya English, Executive Director of Exceptional Student Education and Student Services for Wakulla County Schools.
“She is one of our home grown ESE teachers, beginning as a paraprofessional, then using the ‘Para to Teacher’ Florida Department of Education grant to receive her dual Bachelor’s degree in ESE and Elementary Education from Flagler College. I am so proud of her for now attaining this final Project OPERATION slot. She will be a great mentor to our ESE teachers in addition to helping our students,” adds English.
Samlal says she had an eye-opening experience that made her want to learn more about ASD: “I had taught a number of students with Autism, but they were high functioning with reasonable communication skills. Two years ago I had a child who screamed incessantly, rocked, flapped her hands, bit and scratched herself and anyone who got close to her.
“She is my inspiration. She is the reason that now I must learn more and help other children in a similar situation. I tried every strategy that my helpful administrators suggested and spent many nights trying to come up with ways to ‘tame’ her outbursts.
“Then I discovered that she loved music. That became the one thing that started to build that bond of trust. Now we sing every morning as a whole group. She is a completely different child. She is happy to be with us, knows our routines and expectations, and can even count by 5’s and 10’s. Most important is that she knows I am there to listen and help her and that she is safe and loved.”
“Mrs. Samlal works hard each and every day for the students she serves. Her ability to connect with her students and get them to strive to meet her expectations is incredible to watch,” says Shadeville Elementary Principal Nick Weaver.
Adds Superintendent Bobby Pearce, “In addition to Mrs. Samlal being able to better serve her students with ASD, what she learns from her Master’s degree will help her have more insights into helping parents and training more ESE teachers and administrators about Autism. Congratulations to her for earning this important scholarship.”