’83 graduate to present cyber school workshop


student sitting in front of laptop

July 6, 2016

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Many teenagers with special needs encounter challenges growing up, especially as they transition from high school to post-secondary training or employment. Without the right intervention, many of these students might not be able to realize their dreams.

Sherri Markiw


Enter cyber schoolteacher Sherri Markiw. Over the past nine years, the 1983 Slippery Rock University special education graduate has helped more than 200 special needs students become bakers, computer graphic designers, nurses aids, landscapers and daycare workers.

Later this month, Markiw will share her experiences as an online teacher with a statewide audience. She has been asked to co-lead a breakout session titled "Awakening the Transition Journey in Cyber Schools" at the July 22-24 Pennsylvania Community Transition Conference. The conference theme is "Unlocking Potential: Promoting Strengths and Inspiring Success."

It is the first time the conference will include a session presented by educators who only teach in the virtual setting and specialize in giving children with special needs an increased chance for success after high school.

Breakout participants will learn about effective practices cyber schoolteachers can use to provide learning support and life-skills training.

Markiw and a group of her colleagues submitted a proposal to present at the conference. Educators with the Pennsylvania Community Transition Conference evaluated hundreds of proposals and picked presentations that would match the overall theme.

Markiw, who works for Achievement House Cyber Charter School, has 14 students she will work with over the summer. Her students range from 14 to 18 and have physical or intellectual disabilities. Her goal, she said, is to guide students on their journey to becoming independent, employed adults.

"You have to start planning when they're young," she said. "I help them understand their strengths and weaknesses, so that they are better prepared to transition."

The need for cyber educators is on the rise. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, traditional schools average a special education population of 16 percent, while cyber schools average 19 percent.

For some children with special needs, a cyber school is the last free public school option their parents have if a traditional brick and mortar school isn't working. Markiw said the idea of learning in the comfort of his or her own home is appealing for a student who may not be able to leave home due to a medical condition.

Markiw said students requiring an Individualized Education Program can have a variety of learning disabilities which can be accommodated in a K-12 setting, but often less so in the real world. These disabilities can be psychological or physiological, but ultimately they impact the way a student learns or performs.

By teaching self-advocacy and self-determination, Markiw is proving that there is a future for these students after high school. They work with students to find careers that interest them and match with their ability level.

Additionally, the virtual curriculum is built so that students are offered opportunities in computer science and the ability to attain certifications in the tech field on top of their traditional diploma.

"If a young adult with special needs can advocate for themselves in a job interview, they can explain to a prospective employer what their disability is and explain what tools they would need to contribute in the workplace and why they need these to be successful," Markiw said. "We want to set the bar higher for our students and prevent them from being discouraged because of their disabilities."

She said she works with students and their parents to set realistic goals. For instance, a student may say he wants to become a National Football League football player. While that may not be realistic, Markiw said she would coach a student to plan for a career as an equipment manager in the NFL.

Part of the challenge is getting parents to think about helping their child become independent and avoiding "failure to launch."

"You want to get the parents to start thinking that their children will grow up faster than they expect," Markiw said. "And you have to be realistic. Maybe all of them can't go to Slippery Rock University, but a lot of students in need of learning support do make it to a technical school."

Markiw said she developed a heart for young people with disabilities early in her life. Growing up in Butler, she befriended a neighbor boy, Bobby, who had Spina Bifida. Bobby and she became friends and she took him to his senior prom.

"I would baby sit him and I learned all about Spina Bifida," she said. "It was Bobby who inspired me to get into special education."

The statewide conference is offered annually at the Penn Stater Conference Center in State College. Hosted by the Bureau of Special Education's Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network, hundreds of Pennsylvania special needs families, educators, administrators and supporters gather to share different ways students can prepare for life after high school.

For more information, or to register for the conference, visit: http://www.pattan.net/category/Training/Calendar/event/event.html?id=9ea403ae-faa4-41da-a98a-4724aafd8e69

MEDIA CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine | 724.738.4854 | gordon.ovenshine@sru.edu