Special education teachers rarely are the recipients of Teacher of the Year awards.
But Elizabeth Rafalowsky, the South Windsor High School special education transition coordinator, bucked the trend by being announced the school district’s Teacher of the Year.
“I feel so proud and elated to be working and representing South Windsor public schools, a district that … is willing to put forth a special education teacher as Teacher of the Year,” Rafalowsky, a Glastonbury resident, said in an interview Wednesday. “It just speaks volumes to the fact that the district values all of its departments and employees. This is not just an honor for me … it’s validating to the entire special education department.”
The programs she has initiated have been so successful that she was one of 13 semifinalists for Connecticut Teacher of the Year (unfortunately, she did not win the award - that went to Cromwell teacher Blaise Messinger).
Still, based on her work in the South Windsor school system, the inquiry shouldn’t be why Rafalowsky won the district award, but how come it took so long?
Perhaps an even better question is how was she not honored with the statewide award?
Rafalowsky works with all special education high school students who are 16 years old and up - some 200 of them - helping with their transition goals, whether to secondary education, employment, community involvement or just day-to-day living. That can mean anything from helping a student put together a resume or college application all the way to preparing students to enter the workforce by teaching them not only skills, but appropriate behavior in the workplace.
Toward that end, Rafalowsky heads up two programs - Copy Cats and the Project Worth Young Adult Academy.
Copy Cats is a vocational training program in which students - there are 10 in the program this year - fill and deliver copying orders from South Windsor High staff members by using computer-based copy machines.
Rafalowsky runs four structured periods a day, and students are graded based on their job performance, including how they handle constructive criticism, initiative displayed, independence and whether they get along with their co-workers.
The Project Worth Young Adult Academy, now in its third year, is an off-campus program for students with significant disabilities between the ages of 18 and 21 who have enough credits to graduate, but are “working on transition skills so that can be successful young adults,” Rafalowsky said.
The academy currently has five students who are working in internships with local businesses and organizations.
“There have been a lot of great partnerships between the schools and the community,” Rafalowsky said.
The program itself has been a resounding success thus far, not only with the students but with the community as well.
“We have a really good reputation in the community,” Rafalowsky said.
Her colleagues and supervisors, for their parts, said that Rafalowsky was most deserving of the accolades she received.
South Windsor High School Principal Daniel Sullivan said that Rafalowsky is “an incredible, passionate woman who cares about the whole school. She has done incredible work with the young adult programs.”
Specifically, Sullivan said that the academy is a “model” for other school districts to follow. Other districts may have similar programs that they outsource privately, but the Project Worth Young Adult Academy is run in-house, allowing for greater control, Sullivan said.
“You can do it your way and do it better,” he said. “It’s what a lot of school districts want to do.”
As for Rafalowsky, she said that she would be able to appreciate the South Windsor award and being a statewide semifinalist more when she can take a step back and consider it after a reception is held for all of the semifinalists at The Bushnell in Hartford in November.
“I was completely surprised and it was overwhelming,” she said upon finding out she was one of the final 13. “I’ll be able to savor it … and appreciate the process for what it was, because it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.”