“I was in complete shock,” said Stephanie Bentzel.
Bentzel is referring to the moment her boss told her she had been selected by Symetra Financial and the San Francisco 49ers football team as the most recent recipient of the companies’ “Heroes in the Classroom” award.
The award recognizes Bay Area teachers for outstanding leadership and instructional skills. Each year during the 49ers’ playing season, a total of 16 teachers are honored with the award. The teachers are nominated by a co-worker; principal of their school; current or former students of the teacher, or their parents; or school district staff.
Bentzel is a teacher for (MUSD) post-secondary ACCESS program, which helps young adults with special needs such as autism or learning disabilities learn to live life more independently after graduating from . The students are typically between the ages of 18 and 22.
“We’re basically preparing them for independent living. So we do a lot of job coaching, teaching independent living skills, and basically just preparing them to be as independent as possible once they graduate here,” Bentzel explained.
As part of the program, students are given “jobs” at local businesses, and teachers like Bentzel accompany them on their work days. Students in MUSD’s ACCESS program work at places like , , the , , and , for two hours a day, four days a week.
“Each group goes with a job coach to a job site, and they learn basic job skills, such as how to do the job, what’s appropriate behavior, and they work on social skills as well,” said Bentzel.
She said, the program also teaches life skills like grocery shopping, chores, riding public transportation and eating out.
Bentzel first came to MUSD in 2007, and worked at Milpitas High School doing similar community-based instruction. At the time, the district didn’t have a post-secondary program—meaning, once students graduated, they were on their own.
After a while, Bentzel began talking to district officials about the possibility of creating a post-secondary program.
“So, they kind of let me create one,” she said, explaining that, for a while, she observed similar programs in other districts like Sunnyvale, and took bits and pieces she liked from each one to help design MUSD’s post-secondary program.
Thanks to the timing of it all, Bentzel has been working with her current group of students since they were freshmen—the post-secondary program launched just as they were graduating from Milpitas High School.
Bentzel was nominated for the “Heroes in the Classroom” award by her co-worker, Bobbi Stanislawski, an instructional aide for the ACCESS program.
“Mrs. Bentzel cares about our students, and individualizes the whole day around their personal needs,” Stanislawski said. “She has done an excellent job introducing students into the community.”
“She is a wonderful teacher, making a difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities,” said Matthew Patterson, Bentzel’s boss, who is the director of special education and student services for MUSD.
Bentzel said she was truly surprised when Patterson came and told her she had been nominated and selected to receive the “Heroes in the Classroom” award.
“I was pretty shocked. I had to make him repeat it; I didn’t understand what was going on,” she recalled with a laugh. “It was really cool.”