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Special education teacher strives to help students

Sara Murdoch works with special education students at a Wauwatosa apartment as part of the STRIVE program she created for students ages 19-21. The program helps them develop transitional skills for independent living, vocational training and social communication.

Sara Murdoch works with special education students at a Wauwatosa apartment as part of the STRIVE program she created for students ages 19-21. The program helps them develop transitional skills for independent living, vocational training and social communication.

March 11, 2014

When Sara Murdoch was in college, she was doing field work at a school in Massachusetts, and she saw students with significant learning disabilities.

The opportunity to have an impact on their lives intrigued her.

"I got very interested," said Murdoch, who has her undergraduate degree from Northeastern University in physical education and recreation. "So I decided to be a teacher."

She enrolled at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater where she earned her master's degree in special education.

That set Murdoch up for what is turning out to be a long, successful career in the Elmbrook School District working with students in the special education department.

Murdoch was recently honored for her near 40 years of service with the 2014 Brookfield Jaycees Outstanding Educator Award at the annual Brookfield Jaycees Distinguished Service Award Banquet.

"It feels very nice to be recognized," said Murdoch, who has taught in the Elmbrook School District for 37 years and has taught special education at the elementary, middle and high school level.

Besides her longevity as a special-education teacher at Brookfield Central High School, Murdoch was selected for her work with Project STRIVE — Specialized Transition, Recreation, Independent Living and Vocational Experiences — an adult transition service for 19- to 21-year-old young adults in the Elmbrook School District with cognitive disabilities and/or autism.

The program partners with community agencies and focuses on transition goals and priorities to further develop independent living skills, social communication, vocational abilities and recreational activities.

Murdoch started the program three years ago as a way for these students to learn life skills beyond the classroom.

"I suggested to the director years ago that we really need something for these students," Murdoch said. "Eventually they agreed. It really helps students generalize the real world. It makes such a difference every day."

The program rents an apartment off Bluemound Road just outside of Brookfield in Wauwatosa. But Murdoch said she's in the process of looking for a different facility that is handicap accessible and in the Elmbrook School District.

Seven students are part of the program, and Murdoch said it's best with less than 10 students to get more one-one-one interaction with teachers. Besides working at the apartment learning how to live independently during the day, the program also takes students to the local YMCA and other volunteer work sites.

After the student turns 21, they receive their high school diploma. Before coming to STRIVE, the students received a certificate during their graduation at Central or East.

Murdoch said "it's rewarding" to help these students.

"I really enjoy working with the students, the families," she said. "They have the students 24/7, so it's just important to understand their needs. I love what I do and feel very fortunate."

The program is run during the regular school year. The district pays for half of the apartment rent with STRIVE paying the other half. STRIVE also held a fundraiser to purchase a wheelchair accessible van.

"The district is very supportive of this service," she said."I feel very fortunate to have been in such a good place."

Murdoch added that making STRIVE a success has been a team effort — from the district's speech therapists, teaching assistants and more.

"I think it's important to note that it's not just me," she said. "I said at the awards dinner that a team of people make Project STRIVE work. We have a fantastic team of people who want to help these students be successful."

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