Bill Jager is the principal of Columbia Elementary School in Bakersfield. Before he was a principal, he taught the first autism class in Kern County, where the number of students with autism has grown by 500 percent in the last 10 years.
Bill knows all about the need to give children with autism a great education. He and his wife, Carrie, also teach an autism class at PLNU’s regional center in Bakersfield.
At Bill’s school, where Carrie is also the special education director, students with ASDs have opportunities to get help with struggles like language and social skills. For example, Columbia holds a “film festival” once a week where students watch clips of unusual social situations from TV shows and discuss what people in the scene must be thinking. For students with ASDs, “theory of mind,” or the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, is difficult, so getting perspective on what others are thinking is necessary to develop social skills.
Columbia’s resident speech and language therapist also accompanies children with ASDs on the playground. When a difficult social situation arises, he walks through the process with students.
Bill also helps students with autism individually. One of his students is terrified of fire drills, so Bill created a “social story,” a short story about a particular child that helps put a challenging situation into visual perspective. The story simply states that there are fire drills, gives reasons why they are important, and outlines what the ideal response to them would be. Bill meets with the student the day before each fire drill.
It’s no surprise that parents of students with ASDs are often referred to Columbia.
“I see our staff as detectives asking ‘what are these children trying to tell us?’” said Bill.
Bill says it’s the greatest reward when together they discover the ways they can communicate.