The Thanksgiving season is all about gratefulness and service, and no one is doing it better than the Least Restrictive Environment (or LRE) students at McNairy Central High School.
As part of their annual Thanksgiving celebrations, the class got together and made soup gift bags as present for faculty and staff throughout the school system—a gift, teacher Kristen Hill says, that gives them purpose and excitement.
“Each of our kids have different goals, so even if it’s just measuring stuff, that comes out of their Individualized Education Program (I.E.P.) goals,” Hill said, with obvious passion. “So we’re hitting so many of their goals in one activity. There’s the measuring, there’s the reading, there’s the stirring, etc.”
I.E.P’s are individualized learning programs that are assigned to students with special needs. Each child has incredibly specific benchmarks to help them learn at their own pace. And for Hill, these simple gifts mark a perfect way to spread joy and learn something, all in one go.
“This is such a really cool way to get the kids out into the school, and for the teachers and other students to see what it is that we do in our classroom,” she said. “It’s just something that they look forward to every single year.”
The activity has been spear-headed for years by Bonnie Hickman, Hill’s teaching partner, long before Hill even arrived in McNairy County.
“This is her baby,” Hill laughed. “I just want our kids to get some recognition for what they’re doing.”
Although she’s been teaching special education students for eight years, after three years of teaching McNairy County students, Hill couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“I love it—I wouldn’t teach any other age group,” Hill said. “My best friend growing up—her grandmother started a residential facility for people with special needs, and I hung out at that place every weekend for years. And I used to have a blast! We would go and we would decorate for all the holidays, we did all the parties and stuff like that…and I don’t know. I just grew up with this group of people and I just really enjoy it.”
Hill and Hickman get the students when they enter the program in 9th grade, and get to work with them until they’re 22.
“I’ll have some of the kids for years and years,” she said. “We have a really great program here.”
Each November, the students get to decorate the bags, create tags, and make the soup that they then get to deliver across the school system. In non-pandemic times, the students usually invited community members to the school. According to Hill, an average 150 to 200 people would come each year, from the police departments and fire departments to the mayors, and anyone who had donated to the classroom funds.
This year, things were a little different—though thankfully, no less exciting for the students.
“The kids went to the special education offices, and the central office, and everybody that works there got a bag of soup,” Hill said. “It’s so neat to watch them work—they actually take pride in it. They have assigned roles, and it changes their whole demeanor! It’s really neat watching them step up to the plate.”
“It’s really neat watching them grow,” she added.