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McClellan Bulldogs Headed to Autism Walk

By Casey Cora | May 15, 2014 5:33am
 Alex Norwood plays with a camera inside a classroom at Bridgeport's McClellan Elementary. Alex is one of dozens of autistic students at the school. (File photo)
Alex Norwood plays with a camera inside a classroom at Bridgeport's McClellan Elementary. Alex is one of dozens of autistic students at the school. (File photo)
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DNAinfo/Casey Cora

BRIDGEPORT — More than 100 McClellan Elementary students, parents and faculty will arrive at Soldier Field on Saturday, intent on raising awareness about autism.

"That's two busloads, easy," Principal Joseph Shoffner said.

Shoffner and dozens of others will march in the 2014 Walk Now for Autism Speaks event scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. Saturday. Together, the school community has raised more than $1,000 that'll be sent to Autism Speaks, a national advocacy and research group.

Casey Cora discusses Saturday's event at Soldier Field and what it means to one Bridgeport school:

The school at 3527 S. Wallace Ave. is one of about 100 schools to have a cluster program for students with special needs. It attracts autistic students from all over the city, not just the surrounding Bridgeport neighborhood.

About 50 students enrolled there are autistic, Shoffner said. They're taught by three teachers in three small classrooms that are situated more like open spaces than the traditional desk-and-chalkboard setup.

Many of the autistic students are nonverbal and rely on electronic devices to help them communicate.

"One of the biggest challenges for them is change," Shoffner said.

Among the strategies used by teachers is to create "social stories" photo books, which offer autistic students photographic and storytelling previews of new situations they'll encounter — say, a birthday party at a pizza place or a field trip to the Adler Planetarium.

Students at McClellan are given speech and occupational therapies and have the option of retreating to a “sensory room,” a converted closet filled with special toys and illuminated by a soft glow.

That room was built with outside money, a $5,000 donation from big-box hardware store Lowe's. The school also received money from the sale of artwork auctioned off at the Blackstone Renaissance hotel Downtown.

Hampered by budget cuts, the school community is always on the lookout for more partnerships and volunteers to bolster what's offered at McClellan, which is made up of 94 percent low-income students.

There are the Chicago White Sox employees who walk down 35th Street and read with the students, the school's parent mentor program and more.

School leaders credit the community efforts for higher scores on standardized tests. CPS rates student growth at McClellan — a metric based on performance of national testing standards — as "far above average."

"At McClellan, we're not shy about going out and getting what our kids need," one teacher said at the community hearings last year, when CPS was considering closing the school for good.

Saturday's event is expected to draw 25,000 participants. Organizers say they're hoping to raise $1.6 million for autism research.