Teacher’s passion paves way for students to be honored at graduation

Everyone likes to be recognized, whether it’s a simple pat on the back or a Nobel Prize. One of the most memorable recognitions is graduation, but sadly not all students can attend. However, there is an alternative opportunity. Life Skills graduation was started by Bridgenettle Johnson in 1982 and has since brought that special feeling of recognition to those students.

“For some of our students the stimulation of a large graduation in a large unfamiliar place overwhelms them, therefore they choose not to participate,” Johnson said. “The Life Skills graduation gives those students and their families a chance to have a similar experience in a smaller setting.”

The graduation is a team effort, with various classes and clubs working together to truly make the occasion spectacular.

“Culinary classes headed by Brenda Guzman and Rhonda Cupit prepare delicious desserts and serve them during the luncheon,” Johnson said. “Barbara Volk-Tunnel and her floral design classes decorate the auditorium and dining tables according to the theme we have chosen. Reneè Richards and mural club design members a mural that lights up the stage.”

There are many parts that make up the ceremony, including students shaking hands with administrators and listening to a guest speaker. This year the guest speaker is Rose Norwood, who was the dean of Special services for five years.

“The students know and love [Rose], so she was a great choice to speak to them,” Johnson said. “This year we will be entertained by assistant principal Baldomero Valdez who will sing and play beautiful Mexican music during the program.”

Life Skills graduation has a unique theme each year, helping to make each graduation memorable.

“This year’s theme just happens to be Mexican,” Johnson said. “We don’t try to take away from the regular graduation so we have themes.”

One memorable event in the graduation is each student presenting a speech about what they have accomplished in the past year.

“I started writing simple speaking parts for the students to practice and later let them write their own,” Johnson said. “They loved it! It made them proud to stand before the microphone and practice their speeches. Everything else just fell into place and the result is what we have now.”

The special graduation started when Johnson noticed that Life Skills students weren’t attending graduation.

“I met with the counselor at the time Linda Asberry and two of our Special Education teachers, Nancy Fuchs and Mae Frances Wells to plan a graduation program for the next graduating class and they all shared in the vision.” Johnson said.

From its simple beginning, Life Skills graduation has blossomed into a great program, that continues to celebrate the students’ accomplishments.

“The graduation ceremony is her baby, it’s what she has envisioned for her students,” career tech teacher Nina Wright said. “She started it as an alternative for them so they wouldn’t be lost in the crowd at Reed, and each year she tries to make it better and more meaningful for those students. It’s very important to her for those kids to have special recognition; and that’s what’s it all about.”

Johnson originally planned on going into Home Economic Education, but then her mother began to work for the Mental Health Mental Retardation (MHMR) association and it influenced her career choice.

“Through her job I met her clients and fell in love with them and I wanted to learn more about people with special needs,” Johnson said.

Johnson teaches Life Skills well by varying the activity, but keeping the skills the same.

“[Johnson] is very patient with the students, what should take one or two times to learn a skill take her students’ takes multiple times, going over it and over it and over it.” Wright said.

Johnson gives to the students, but the students also give back to Johnson in many ways.

“Before my surgery in October of 2013 I received a heart shaped pillow with hearts appliques with all the students and staff names stuffed in the pocket,” Johnson said. “It melted my heart! Then one of the students said to me ‘I’m going to pray for you Ms. Johnson so you can come back school!’ I never felt so loved and appreciated.”

Through Johnsons hard work Life Skills graduation continues to thrive. This years graduation will take place on May 23 at 11:00 am in the Blue Auditorium.