Noelle Cruder’s classroom is anything but ordinary.
The Severna Park High School special education teacher has a traditional setup at first glance – tables, chairs, dry erase boards, but venture to the far side of her room and she’ll excitedly point out the Cricut vinyl cutting machine, intentionally placed near the window to access the Wi-Fi signal, and a bevy of supplies to create jewelry and other handmade arts and crafts items.
“We want to make a small business,” Cruder said.
Cruder likes to say special education chose her, not the other way around.
The Severna Park native and former political science major had plans of attending law school before an ill-timed bout with tonsillitis caused her to miss the LSAT and eventually take a corporate job.
“The more I sat at a desk, I thought, ‘I can’t do this,’” Cruder recalled.
She doesn’t do much sitting these days.
As a teacher in the school’s Alternative Classroom Curriculum (ACC) program, Cruder keeps herself, and her students, quite busy.
Along with typical school subjects such as writing, math and science, Cruder and her counterpart in the ACC program spend a substantial amount of time working with their students on life and social skills in an effort to promote independence and prepare them for employment after high school.
One such project is the coffee cart, which was started by her predecessor as a stationery coffee stand from which the students sold coffee to faculty. Cruder went a step further, first by mobilizing the cart and adding items such as handmade spirit earrings, then by obtaining the green light from Principal Lindsay Abruzzo to sell coffee to students.
“It’s amazing,” Cruder said. “Our kids are like celebrities when they walk through the hall. It takes us so long to get from point A to point B because they’re fist-bumping every kid. They know all their names. It really is great.”
Emily Leizear’s son is one of Cruder’s students.
“This is one of our son’s favorite things to do at school because it’s an opportunity for him to interact with staff and practice job skills, such as making change,” Leizear said. “Everything she does with her students is to foster independence and inclusion to ready them for life beyond high school.”
An educator’s job often extends well outside the classroom. For Cruder, working with students with disabilities means helping their families navigate the next steps in their children’s education, development and independence.
“We become part of their families,” Cruder said. “I always say [to parents], ‘I become part of your support circle. You’re in my support circle. Our goals are the same.’”
A viral video involving one of Cruder’s students has ignited conversations regarding anti-bullying and how to promote inclusiveness in Severna Park schools and the community at large. Cruder thinks one avenue is for parents to encourage their kids to volunteer for the Special Olympics or other organizations affiliated with people with disabilities.
“After high school, you don’t know who’s labeled and who’s not,” Cruder said. “They are going to have to work in all environments. Make sure they learn that patience and understanding.”
As for her students, the coffee cart is just the tip of the iceberg. This spring, she’s plowing ahead with a plan for them to have their own table at the local farmers market.
Achieving these big-ticket goals can’t happen without first breaking down and mastering the individual skills required to perform each task, milestones many of us take for granted. That progress is what motivates Cruder, and it’s her favorite part of the job.
“Every little thing is such a big deal,” Cruder said. “A student asking me, ‘What do we do next?’ – that’s amazing! You’ve been working for years to go that next step. Those little moments are literally my favorite. I would do anything for them. It makes everything else in the world seem so silly.”