Eye on ECCS: Chanhassen Elementary

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NOTE: Each week throughout the school year, we will visit a school across Eastern Carver County Schools. Some weeks the plan may be to stop in multiple classrooms by grade, or by subject. Other weeks it may highlight a certain specialist group. The purpose is to give families and our community a glimpse into the every-day learning environment happening in our buildings. A chance to spotlight the incredible work our teachers and staff do on a daily basis for our students, and to showcase the incredible work our students produce as well. So, keep your Eye on ECCS!


The room becomes quiet. All eyes are on one student. Teacher Chelsea Zabel holds a tablet in front of a student with limited motor skills. Through hard work from the student and his school district occupational therapist, he has been working on moving his hand to tap a button to start the video on the tablet.

The focus and determination of the student is apparent. Teachers and paraprofessionals cheer him on. The button is pushed and one bear appears on the screen and eventually ends up with three dancing bears on the screen. Everyone celebrates. 

“I love the collaboration that goes into the DISCOVER program. We are always working closely with service providers (speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc.) to provide the best programming for our students,” said Zabel, a special education teacher at Chanhassen Elementary.

All district center-based programs are multi-categorical based on student needs. DISCOVER primarily serves students who have qualified for special education services under the categories of Developmental Cognitive Disabilities, including Moderate and Severe/Profound, or Severely Multiply Impaired. 

Zabel, in her second year in the Discover program at Chanhassen Elementary, her third overall in Eastern Carver County Schools, is among one of two special education teachers in the program. KaryAnne Landon is the program’s other teacher. Like Zabel, it is her second year at Chanhassen Elementary, and fourth overall year in the district.

The DISCOVER program provides each student with individualized instruction, support and services needed to access the general education setting to provide social interactions with peers and to increase independence.

Students in Ms. Zabel’s class, with support from paras, work on language skills. Serena Mayers goes through matching pictures of objects with beginning letter sounds. Katie Ochs lets the students pick out a book for story time. Kelly Helgeson is also working on matching words to letter sounds, while Zabel is aiding students in sounding out high frequency words.

Two students come up to the smart board to begin the lesson, one drawing lines to match an object to the word, while the other takes scrambled up letters from the word, “stop,” to spell it correctly. The students and teachers dance to a YouTube song about the word as well.

Zabel said that collaboration among teachers and support staff allows the classrooms “to create fun and engaging lessons that all our students can participate in. 

“This year we were able to make apple sauce. Our students learned about the apple life cycle, used kitchen tools like an apple peeler, measuring cup and knife, and then the best part was eating the finished product!” Zabel said.

The vision of the DISCOVER program is to model and teach students lifelong independent living skills to be productive members of their school and community. 

One student, new to Chanhassen Elementary this school year, has a special job every day now. He, along with a para, heads to the media center to grab a book cart. They circle the building, passing each classroom to collect books that are being returned. The student, just in his third day of his “book job,” has already developed his own method of stacking the books.

Once all of the books are returned to the library, the student is eager to get back to the classroom to see what his classmates are doing. It’s those moments that Zabel sees huge growth in as the students begin their second month of the school year.

“I love to see the peer interaction throughout the day. These students are teaching each other about kindness and acceptance,” Zabel said.

Down the hall is the AIM program, new to Chanhassen Elementary this school year. Like DISCOVER, the AIM program provides each student with individualized instruction, support, and services needed to access the general education setting to provide social interactions with peers and to increase independence.

This program primarily serves students who have qualified for special education services under the category of Autism Spectrum Disorders.

AIM and DISCOVER are similar in their approach to curriculum and staffing.

Inside one of the two classrooms, teacher Dan Wendle works with a student in a cube. Wendle asks for a certain number and the student must choose the card that matches it. Along with reassurance and praise for the student’s correct answer, Wendle and the student bond through multiple high-fives.

Around the classroom, Mackenzie Vruno and Sofia Elmi are among staff bouncing between students who are working on various assignments. Stamp markers are a huge hit with some, while one student mimics the sounds of every animal he places on a puzzle.

The AIM classrooms have a schedule similar to that of a traditional classroom with morning circle time, handwriting, reading and math group times, social skills and music groups, recess and lunch, and open gym time in the afternoon.

Proper classroom etiquette of sitting at the table, taking turns and raising their hands are also learned expectations of the students.

Chanhassen Elementary principal, Greg Lange, said, “we’re diligent in fostering a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment for each student we serve. 

“Bringing the AIM center-based program back to Chanhassen Elementary School has been amazing. Everything from our students, staff and families, to the actual physical and sensory equipment, the transition has been very smooth. Our teachers have been able to customize their classrooms to meet the needs of, and best serve our students. Having both AIM and Discover under one roof maximizes the learning opportunities for our students. Our entire school community embraces and celebrates the unique diversity of our students.”

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