Promoting inclusion and mental well-being | Promouvoir l’inclusion et le mieux-être mental
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Simon Chang Difference Maker Award

Behavioural technician Natalina Melillo, back left, and teacher Cynthia Yee, back right, of Parkdale Elementary School were honoured as this edition’s Simon Chang Difference Makers at a festive celebration in the school’s gymnasium on November 2. They are seen here with their students and Simon Chang, front row middle.
Montreal - Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Dynamic duo at Parkdale wins

by Randy Pinsky

“I can’t think of two more deserving people,” said Karolyn Liverman, staff assistant at the English Montreal School Board’s Parkdale Elementary School in Saint-Laurent, of this edition’s winners of the Simon Chang Difference Maker Award. Teacher Cynthia Yee and behavioural technician Natalina Melillo were honoured for their work with special needs youth.

Simon Chang and his business partner Faye Swift visited Parkdale on September 16. “When I saw Simon Chang in the principal’s office, I knew something exciting was going to happen!” exclaimed Melillo.

Sponsored by the Simon Chang Foundation for Change, this award recognizes individuals who have demonstrated exceptional commitment in the special needs community.

“We are so grateful for the Foundation and all their wonderful efforts,” said Liverman. “This will provide Parkdale students with further opportunities to grow and discover the world around them in ways they would normally only dream of.”

Principal George Koutsoulis noted, “Natalina and Cynthia demonstrate every day the values of Parkdale’s mission statement, which are that every student can attain their full potential in a safe, caring and respectful educational environment.”

Always on the lookout for external assistance, Melillo wrote to the Simon Chang Foundation for Change when she saw an ad in Inspirations, impressing them with her persistence in seeking out donations of supplies for special projects.

Melillo and Yee co-teach a WINGS class for Grades 3-4, a self-contained class designed for students with autism spectrum disorder or special needs. As the class requires more specialized attention and adapted teaching, the educators tailor their style for the students’ needs, abilities and challenges. Especially valuable is the fact that they have the same students for two consecutive years so they can build a close rapport with the families. Not only does this limit the anxiety of changing teachers every year, the team can develop an understanding of the child’s triggers and goals and plan accordingly.

Yee has a Certificate in Inclusive Education and an Education degree from McGill, and Melillo has a degree in Special Care counselling from Vanier College. “Nat has the biggest heart. We work so well together,” said Yee. “She goes above and beyond for the kids. She inspires me so much, to be better.”

The adapted teaching methods at Parkdale focus on building life skills and autonomy, such as through their mock store and Yee’s famous baking classes. Such indirect ways of teaching provide a solid base while also exploring concepts of math, science and teamwork.

Liverman is inspired by the team’s innovativeness and connection with the students. “I see amazing children who may otherwise struggle, become explorers, creators, communicators and independent learners.” Of particular use are “social stories” or drawings of scenarios such as riding the bus, dealing with anger and managing behaviour during recess that students can review. Parkdale has a digital collection of social stories thanks to a grant from LEARN (2017-18). By “going through” the experiences, anxiety about the unexpected is lessened.

Yee routinely throws in “mini-changes” to help the students develop adaptability and problem-solving skills. “We have to cause trouble sometimes,” laughed Melillo.

The team has witnessed some incredible breakthroughs over the years. Angelito Suarez, father of Agape, shared, “Our son has improved from being non-verbal to someone who expresses his love to his teachers every day.” Echoed Yana Polyakova, mom of Gani, “My very shy and insecure [son] met a gentle Miss Cynthia and brave Miss Nat, and transformation started from there.”

“Cynthia and Natalina are making a real difference in the lives of their students, and I was delighted to see this interaction first-hand when we visited Parkdale,” said Chang. “Despite their limited resources, these two extremely creative women do as much as they can, every day, to inspire and connect with their students. I am proud to add them to our list of Difference Makers!”

When asked what advice she would give about kids with special needs, Melillo replied, “Let them lead and then follow. Given the chance, they will surprise you. They’ve taught me so many things.” 

Ceremony photo

The Simon Chang Difference Makers were celebrated at Parkdale School on November 2. In attendance were, from left:  Cynthia Yee, teacher; Natalina Melillo, behavioural technician; Mark Bergman, Inspirations’ manager, Marketing & Outreach; Karolyn Liverman, staff assistant; Pela Nickoletopoulos, assistant director general, EMSB; Simon Chang; George Koutsoulis, principal of Parkdale; James Kromida, commissioner for Ward 5; Nick Katalifos, director general of the EMSB; and the entire Parkdale student body and staff of Parkdale. Yee and Melillo were applauded for their creativity and passion in the classroom and received funding to create sensory kits for each of the school’s classrooms and personalized Big Blue Hug paintings.

More about Parkdale

by Wendy Singer

The goal for Parkdale’s neurodiverse students is improving communication, social behaviour, by Randy Pinsky More about Parkdale emotional regulation and sensory-motor skills. The school has five self-contained classrooms for special needs students and three for students diagnosed with developmental language disorders. They are designed particularly for students in Grades 1 to 6 with severe language disorders, where they receive specific and intensive language stimulation.

Parkdale, along with Hampstead Elementary School, are the two EMSB schools that offer the Success for All program. This is a whole-school reform strategy that engages students from Kindergarten to Grade 6, and transforms instruction, learning and school culture, using reading as a cornerstone.

“Through the use of best practices and the firm belief that our students can and will reach their potential, partial and full integration into classrooms has become a reality for many of our students. I am very proud of the dedication demonstrated by all of our special needs teachers, special education technicians and pupil attendants at Parkdale,” said George Koutsoulis, principal, Parkdale Elementary School.