Sitting Down With Rich East High School’s Golden Apple Recipient Debra Thomas (Story & Video)

Golden Apple recipient Debra Thomas at Rich East High School
Golden Apple recipient Debra Thomas with sons Ryan and Raymond (standing, left to right) and Teaching Assistant Nija Simmons. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- Fighting for the rights of her students. That’s just one of the goals that drives Mrs. Debra Thomas, a Special Education teacher at Rich East High School who was recently named a Golden Apple recipient.

In a statement, Golden Apple refers to Mrs. Thomas as “… an exceptional advocate for her special education students, and works diligently to make sure that social and education silos do not exist for them. Specifically, she integrates students in general population classes, as well as after school clubs like chess, pom poms, art and computer technology (which she leads). Thomas makes it very clear to her students that she has great expectations for them to be productive members of society upon graduation. She rewards students for asking questions, challenging an idea or sharing insights during class. Thomas’ classes are described as “living learning labs,” because she creates a safe and inviting environment where students experience an adventure on their journey to self discovery and subject analysis. As an example of the time and money she invests in her students, every year Thomas organizes a spring dance for students and their families that recognizes seniors who have completed their academic study, and those who have aged out of the young adult program.”

Debra Thomas was chosen from 400 nominations and 30 finalists. Representatives from Rich East, her husband Ray, and sons Raymond, 22, and Ryan, 18, accompanied her to a morning brunch in Chicago when she was named a finalist. Completing eight years teaching at Rich East with her assistant Nija Simmons, Mrs. Thomas is also a stage III breast cancer survivor.

eNews Park Forest sat down with Debra Thomas and spoke with her about education, autism, Rich East High School (which she is very proud to represent), and more.

“I’m a native Chicagoan, a married mother of two: two sons, an 18-year-old and a 22-year-old. The 22-year-old is a young man with autism, which has inspired me to enter the field of special education,” Mrs. Thomas told eNews Park Forest.

“I was a strong advocate as a parent along with my husband for many many years during the IEP process which can be extremely daunting for parents. So as I entered the field, the thought and the goal was to be an advocate for my students as well as my parents and I take great pride in saying that I’ve been pretty successful in doing that.

“I attended public schools up to high school. I went to a Catholic high school in Chicago.

“When I left high school I entered the workforce as I was studying fashion merchandising and so I didn’t complete that. [That] was a two-year degree and I was just a few classes short of completing the associates degree for that, but I went to retail management from there and I really, really loved creating  a huge customer base.

“I left the state of Illinois lived in Atlanta Georgia for a year before returning back to my home state and I again reentered management and fine jewelry sales. I worked 13 years for a company, a family-owned company, lovely company, before they went out of business.

“I worked in a corporate office training for Sprint before they actually left our state.

“While I worked at Sprint I did substitute [teach]. I substituted for maybe about 12 years while working with Sprint and while I was earning my degrees. My Special Ed degree and Masters, my graduate work, is at University of Illinois at Chicago, UIC.”

How long has Mrs. Thomas been at Rich East?

“I’m closing out on my my eighth year, like I said, my assistant and I, Nija Simmons, started together. We’re closing out on our eighth year here.”

What does the Golden Apple mean to you?

“The Golden Apple is the most prestigious honor. In my previous awards I received honors, plaques, and awards for outstanding service but this is absolutely, without a doubt, the most honorable award that I have received.

“I was nominated by colleague, social worker Derek Reese. I did receive a notification that I was nominated, and I kind of pushed the envelope to the side.”

She says she went back to the notification, seeing that there was a deadline.

“So, I went through the process. It’s a very intense application, essay questions that I had to respond to. My responses totaled seven pages, so I gave very, very thorough thought to the questions.”

In the application, she wrote about about her life, her personal life, her experiences as a student and her work experience outside of the district and within the district.

“I had to have colleagues submit responses as well so I was really, really surprised when I got the notification that I was a finalist, one of 30 from 400 nominations.”

“So, I was really, really, very, very gracious for that,” she said.

“The honor I received for just being a finalist was an invitation to a morning brunch in Chicago. My principal Mark Kramer and I attended along with my my supervisor, Jacalyn Bailey-Moss, the instructional leader for special education, along with my my husband, Ray, and my two sons, Raymond and Ryan, and my brother and his girlfriend.”

“So, that was a wonderful event to attend and I did receive a plaque. I have it on my wall, and I tell people all the time, I told people during the last two weeks, you know what? That was just a surprise in itself, and if it stopped there, then I’m still gracious.”

Parents of students were also asked to participate in a parent focus group as part of the vetting process.

“It’s a long process,” Thomas says.

Two members of Golden Apple visited Rich East High School and observed for the entire day. Their observation consisted of an interview with Principal Kramer and a brief interview with Mrs. Thomas. They also observed two of her lessons and interviewed a group of her colleagues, a group of her students, and a group of her students’ parents.

And they were extremely impressed.

What does Debra Thomas love about special education?

“What I do and what I’m most proud of is taking my students outside of the box. Believe it or not I’ve had colleagues say, ‘Oh, they don’t need to know this.’ Well, yes they do, because they’re citizens of our society. So why wouldn’t they be entitled to know everything that they can to maximize their potential?

“And that’s my belief. I take my kids outside of the box, I challenge them. I’m the special ed teacher who says,’ Okay, we can talk about college. You wouldn’t have to rule that out.’

Mrs. Thomas calls herself “aggressive” about honoring what parents do.

“I’m really, really, really, a stickler on that.”

“I interact with my parents. There is not a day that goes by when I don’t talk to a parent on the telephone or a parent might drop in.”

Her students are between the ages of 14 and 18. “So I am an academic special ed teacher, the Alpha program. We serve the low incidence population.  After they’ve finished their academic requirements, they have the option of transitioning to what we call the transition program. I personally refer to it as the young adult program, in which they can stay until one day before they turn 22.”

What are some of the biggest challenges she’s had through the years?

“Some of the bigger challenges I have are our students who may be higher functioning and the socialization the gen. ed. [general education] peers. Sometimes our students may not want their gen. ed. peers to know that they are in the Alpha program.”

“A lot of times our kids function higher than they think compared to their peers outside of the program.”

What does Mrs. Thomas want people to know about autism?

“One of the first things that I tell people is identify the the individual first. So, it’s not an autistic boy or an autistic girl, or an autistic this or that. It’s a lady with autism. It’s a young man with autism. So, first, identify the individual.”

She goes on, “I also want people to understand some times people when they hear the word autism they think of anomaly, and they think of the unusual, strange. But, my kids, including my son with autism, they grow by leaps and bounds, and we should not underestimate their capability.”

“It’s funny too, because, when I introduced myself as a special education teacher, people typically will say, ‘Awwwwww.’ ‘Oh I feel sorry for those kids.’

“Our kids are the last kids you should feel sorry for, because, in my classroom, I make my kids happy. They come to me happy and I send them home happy.

“So this idea that all special ed kids are pitiful, particularly our kids with autism, that’s a misconception, and I have to educate people on that.”

What is the symbol of the puzzle piece with respect to autism?

“This is a representation of individuals with autism, so the puzzle is, it’s a mystery. There’s a lot of controversy as you probably know regarding the costs of autism, the mystery around the the prevalence of autism. It seems like each year the numbers in the stats are implying that 25% or 30%  of children will develop autism. So, that’s pretty much it. That’s my interpretation of the mystification of autism.”

What’s next for the Golden Apple winner?

“I received so many accolades and praise and congratulations from my colleagues, my students, and my parents. It’s really been heartwarming to receive that kind of recognition.”

Debra intends to further her education, now considered a Golden Apple Fellow for life. She would like to take advantage of a sabbatical at Northwestern. “That’s part of the Golden Apple award.”

A representative from Golden Apple reminded her to give back. “I said to myself and to her and that’s not very difficult because that’s what I’m all about.”

Thomas says she loves Rich East, enjoys working for Principal Mark Kramer and the assistant principals.

How do you like the school?
“I love the school! I work under the principalship of Mark Kramer and the assistant principals. They’re wonderful individuals and they create an environment, a very inviting environment. So, I come to school. My family sends me off happy, just like I said to the students, and I normally return happy. I am extremely proud to represent this district.”

She says the award speaks to the school as well, “It’s about Rich East, it’s about the community, the district, the South Suburbs of Chicago. I’m really proud to represent that whole arena.”

Anything else she would like to tell our readers and listeners?

“Well, everyone gets a bite out of the apple, no pun intended. But, being a special education teacher, I represent individuals with disabilities, the most vulnerable population, most marginalized population, and that’s extremely important to me, to let people know that there are teachers who care, teachers to take the students outside of the box. We don’t take our students for granted in their abilities.

“I also have an interest in my students’ life after Rich East. I have students who come and visit. They call all of the time.”

And she repeats, “Individuals with disabilities are entitled to every opportunity.”

Any words for our representatives in Springfield?

“From time to time, I hear that the state of Illinois is one of the higher states when it comes to funding for special education programs. If anything, I would send the message that there should be equality, there should be a fair ground, fair playing, when it comes individuals with disabilities.

“Please don’t make make funding and programs the last on the list or an afterthought when it comes to our individuals with disabilities, particularly those in school.

“The most formative years of our lives are when we are in school. I would say to [the] legislature, fight, because I fight for the rights of my students.”