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Her hand over his, West Potomac High School senior Yona Lindenbaum, 17, guided a Bell View Elementary student, who struggles with a cognitive disability, as he built his holiday gingerbread house.

“I take his hand and put the plastic knife in it and help him spread the icing… then the next time he does it, he’ll know more [about] how to do it,” Lindenbaum said.

Fairfax County high school students like Lindenbaum, who are enrolled in Occupational/Physical Therapy courses at West Potomac Academy, recently visited a class of Bell View kindergarten and first-graders, who have slight or mild developmental delays that impair their cognitive skills.

The gingerbread house construction project was developed by fellow West Potomac Academy student Silvia Bonilla, 18.

“I wanted to see how they reacted. What kind of coordination they had,” said Bonilla, a senior at West Potomac High School. “They were good. When they finished their houses, most of them would run to their teacher and show him what they’d done. They all had big smiles on their faces.”

West Potomac Academy students visit their younger Bell View Elementary peers once a month for similar activities like jack-o’-lantern carving in October and paper-turkey construction in November.

New this year, the hour-long, once a month visits are adding up to a big lesson for both the high school students and their elementary school peers.

“We’re getting job experience,” said Woodson High School senior Jessica Printz, 17. “We’re learning how you take an activity [like gingerbread house building] and break it down.”

While building their sweet houses, high school students ask their younger peers questions such as “What color M&Ms are you putting on your house?” and “What are you doing now?” These types of questions, Occupational/Physical Therapy teacher Sharon Chan said, help the younger students to connect their movements to the activity.

West Potomac Academy is one of six professional technical centers, which provide students with exposure to professions they might be interested in. Students like Printz travel once a day to West Potomac Academy, located on West Potomac High School’s campus in Alexandria, from their base-high school for classes. Printz said she hopes to have a career as an athletic trainer.

Chan, who previously worked as an occupational therapist at Bell View Elementary, said when she became an instructor at West Potomac Academy, she was looking for an opportunity to expose her students to real-world work.

“There are all different kinds of people in the world that as an individual we may not encounter… and to recognize that they are people too, that everyone has a special ability…,” Chan said. “Because of this experience they’ll know, when they come across people with disabilities, that it’s not something you need to be afraid of or stay away from.”

In class, Occupational/ Physical Therapy students spend a bulk of time learning about anatomy, said South County High School senior Christopher Burnett, 18.

“I was hoping to learn how you can help people when it comes to broken legs or whatever,” said the teen. “When I first went [to Bell View], I’d never really worked with kids before. It really helped me… I just noticed that many of them didn’t have the sensory issues that we’re used to working with… It’s a lot of good practice.”

West Potomac Academy students visit Bell View Elementary teacher Richard Hall’s class of ten kindergarten and first-graders. Hall is an educator for students with intellectual disabilities. He said his students have a spectrum of disabilities, which cause them to need smaller classroom settings and more individual attention. While the students have individual strengths and weaknesses, he said, they all have cognitive skill issues.

“We have students in first grade who are learning their letters. In a regular first-grade [class] they’d be learning to read and spell… The kids I have are really at an age of being open and enthusiastic to others,” Hall said, adding that seeing different faces, especially younger ones, is benefiting his students.

West Potomac High School senior Marissa Cucinotta, 17, said she has seen a change in the Bell View Elementary students since the first peer visit.

“Interacting with us, I think they are more comfortable now. They don’t always remember our names, but they remember us,” she said.

Hall said the partnership is a win-win for both groups of students.

“The most obvious advantage is that the more individual attention our kids get the better,” he said. “The high school kids have been great…I think it’s valuable for high school kids who are looking at a career that could mean working with kids that have disabilities. It makes it that much more real to them.”

Hall said during his seven years at Bell View Elementary he has not seen a class of students, like the one at West Potomac Academy, volunteer visits.

“I think it’s great to get any general education kids in here to meet these special needs students,” Hall said.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com