With a 25 percent enrollment increase of life skills students over the past three years, a more spacious and advanced learning environment was essential for the special needs community at the new Waxahachie High School.

An entire line of classrooms, labs and private restrooms now comprise the special education department at Waxahachie High. Diane Chapell, who retired this year after serving the last three as the special education director, relayed at the old campus there was one giant room to suit the needs of the special education students.

However, the new space is equipped with a sensory room, a life skills lab and three additional classrooms. With the new area comes a new director as well, Audrey Thomas. Both the retiring and newly hired directors walked through the new department and emphasized how the state-of-the-art technology will advance the learning environment.

“We are always wanting to build activities and teach them what’s going to make them more independent when they leave the high school,” Thomas emphasized.


The first highlight of the new area is the sensory room with modern and interactive technology.

“I think more of our kids respond to technology because they are brought up with it, and it’s everywhere,” Chapell elaborated. “It’s like putting an interactive game on a computer rather than putting a board game in front of a kid.”

Even though each campus incorporates a sensory space for special needs students, the high school campus includes the best of the best equipment. An LED bubble tube provides input in the visual aspect. Students who also require physical and sensory input might wear a weighted vest or sit in the swinging chairs. Music can be part of the optical element and hit the auditory input.

The new high school is the only campus within Waxahachie ISD that incorporates all five senses.

“Often times, they have a neurological difference on how they take input in from the world and so research has shown that these types of stimulatory provide calming the student is needing,” Thomas said.

Each student in the special education program is given an individualized education plan to identify areas where the students could benefit from. But, not all students in the program require the sensory input or the life skills platform.

The next room is a multifunctional room equipped with a one-way mirror used for observations. Thomas gave an example of a behavioral specialist devising a plan to aid a student if they are struggling in certain areas. That would provide an opportunity for the staff to visualize how they are interacting with the student and give input.

"You can remove that extra variable or if a parent wanted an observation,” Chapell relayed. “Because as soon as you introduce anyone new to an environment, they change the environment and kids have this unique radar to know you’re in there to observe them. They just figure it out.”


The life skills lab provides a multifunctional space for teaching students how to meal prep, do laundry and assemble crafts. “It’s a different instructional environment,” Chapell said.

This room serves different levels of skill and participation and revolves around building independence. It would teach an individual to teach themselves how to make a meal, maybe even a meal for themselves and a guest. It also goes through the process of preparing, cooking and cleaning up. Another focus is safety.

At the end of the year, the students prepare a meal for their parents start to finish. This kitchen is more assessable with the lowered microwaves and can include more students at one time.

The life skills room also helps prepare students for future careers.


The most significant advancement is the lift system that is incorporated in three rooms. At the former campus, a portable lift was in place but usually took two to three staff members to transport a student.

Chapell mentioned the dignity the lift system provides to the students and staff is essential. Multiple staff members are not required to lift the student with the new system; therefore, staff will feel confident in their abilities. From the students' perspective, they will feel dignified when they can be helped and have mobility around the rooms.

The lift system makes it easier to move around, have more independence and have that safety aspect for the teacher to where there is no physical lifting.

“Moving around helps all of us being physical activity,” Thomas mentioned.

Chapell piggybacked, “You don’t want to sit in the same position in the same place all the time. It’s not good for the body. That enables a different positioning.”

The position of a student while learning enables more thought process. That’s why flexible seating is becoming more popular through the district. This system allows a different perspective when being educated.

“If you position a certain way, you increase the attention on time and task. So enabling the staff to position the kids in a new way can increase engagement,” Thomas shared.


Thomas has served as an educator for around 20 years. She was involved with the special education department at Mansfield ISD and received her certification as a diagnostician to evaluate and assess students to find out if they meet the criteria.

She then obtained her bachelor’s degree in psychology from New Mexico University and a master’s in special education to enter a roll in special education administration. She most recently served as a coordinator in the special education department in Arlington ISD.

Thomas comes from a long line of educators and even married one.

“I have always been really interested in students, and how they think and the psychological aspect so special education was just a natural fit,” Thomas elaborated.

Thomas will office from the new Coleman Junior High campus, which is located at the old Waxahachie High School campus. This is the ideal setting due to the central location within the district.

She will focus on record keeping, daily workings of the department within the office, and supervise and manage all of the staff that are serving staff on campuses, budgeting and working with parents.

Even though she officially started just a few days ago on June 25, she already has a goal in mind — inclusion.

“Obviously the whole district is in a transition of growth, so my vision and goal for the department is to collaborate and grow with the district as new and exciting things are happening,” Thomas explained. “For the whole student population, we are including and involving our special education students in all of those opportunities.”

This year will also be the first time for an occupational therapist to be on staff, instead of outsourcing the position. Next is to implement an entire team dedicated to occupational therapy.

In the past five years, over 50 staff members have been hired on and more advanced programs were implemented.

“The current research and data show us that students do better when they are integrated with their typical developing peers,” Thomas added. “So the goal of any program is always going to be how can we make it assessable, available so our students can participate in all of the opportunities and learning environments to the maximum extent that they can.”

Ashley Ford | @aford_news | 469-517-1450