Teacher helps 'shine the light of self esteem' on students

When Cloquet High School's Dave Ellison was honored as the 2011 Minnesota Special Educator of the Year on March 3 at the DECC, he was characteristically modest in his acceptance speech before a crowd of some 300-400 special education teachers.

Dave Ellison
Cloquet teacher Dave Ellison (standing) assists students in his DCD class get ready to prepare spaghetti as part of the life skills training he offers them so they can become independent adults after they get out of school. Wendy Johnson/

When Cloquet High School's Dave Ellison was honored as the 2011 Minnesota Special Educator of the Year on March 3 at the DECC, he was characteristically modest in his acceptance speech before a crowd of some 300-400 special education teachers.

"I told them my greatest reward over the years is watching the students who have graduated using the skills that I taught them - out on the job site, doing their jobs and doing them well, or in the grocery store with their shopping carts, or out recreating, doing the sorts of things we taught them to do."

The thing about Ellison that undoubtedly captured the Minnesota Council for Exceptional Children's eye was the fact that he believes in teaching students how to succeed not only in the classroom, but in life.

Ellison grew up in Duluth and graduated from East High School before going on to college at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Almost from the start, he knew he wanted pursue a career in education. 

"My father was a teacher and taught choral music at Woodland Junior High and later at East High School," he related. "I'd always enjoyed my education and had a lot of favorite teachers who kind of influenced me to go into teaching myself."


It was an experience he had as a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth that steered him in yet another direction. Ellison participated from time to time in a program known as C.H.U.M. Church, started in 1974 by the Central Hillside United Ministries to provide spiritual growth and nurture people with developmental disabilities. That was when he first became interested in the field of special education.

He graduated with a degree in education, with teaching certifications in both social science/secondary education and what was then called TMR (trainable mentally retarded).

Ellison's first job was teaching in the TMR elementary program at Washington Elementary in Cloquet. Over time, the TMR program evolved through many different titles, he explained, and today it is known as the DCD (developmental cognitive disability) program.

After Ellison's first year of teaching in the elementary program, Superintendent Russ Smith approached him and said the secondary position was opening up because Jim Crowley, who had previously held that post, was going to move into teaching physical education.

Ellison agreed to take over that position, which was located at the Cloquet Middle School at the time.

"Jim [Crowley] had the same philosophy as I did and he did a little bit of mentoring with me when I first came," said Ellison. "He was starting to have the kids cook a little bit and work on functional skills to prepare them for life after school, and that's been my own philosophy as well. We want to prepare them for the world of work and also for learning how to take care of themselves in an apartment or group home setting."

Ellison's classroom reflects that philosophy. It's set up half as a classroom and half as a kitchen, with a washer and dryer, stove, refrigerator and all of the various things you'd find in a house so the students can learn to be as independent as they are capable of being.

Initially, when Ellison started out with his innovative educational program, the school didn't have any of the type of equipment he needed.


"I went out and bought a used stove at a garage sale for $25, threw it in my trailer and brought it to school," Ellison said. "We got a used refrigerator from a former counselor at school. They were older appliances, but they got us started."

Five years later, Ellison decided he wanted the students to be in a more age-

appropriate building because most of the young people in his group were ages 15 to 22. He talked with Cloquet High School Principal Denny Modec about moving the program to the high school and was granted a small space to house a part of their


"We at least got our foot in the door, spending part of the day there and part at the middle school where most of our equipment was," said Ellison. "Eventually, we got the classroom space we needed at the high school and it kind of evolved over the years."

The numbers of students in Ellison's program grew from eight to 10, to 12, then 15, and up to 22 kids, so the district hired a second teacher, Lance Horvat, who now has his own classroom with six DCD kids in it. Ellison has 11, ranging in age from 16-21 years old. The classes are an innovative blend of vocational training, life skills and academics that is well-suited to the students and their life's goals.

"We try to mainstream the kids as much as possible in classes such as art, gourmet foods, woodworking, small mechanics, automotive, home maintenance, gym and weight training," Ellison explained. "It's good for the other students to be around them. They all eat lunch together and the kids in Cloquet are great with our kids."

On a typical day, Ellison's students come to school in the morning, go to either adaptive physical education or a regular education class first hour, then to home room with Ellison, and then second and third hours deal with reading and math, with each student having his or her own curriculum.


"Some students are reading stories such as Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, while some are learning beginning sight words such as 'stop, go, don't walk, walk' or restaurant words, community signs, grocery words," related Ellison. 

In math, while some kids are working on how to write checks and balance a check book, some are working on "one plus one is two" and identification of numbers. Each is on his or her own track commensurate with individual abilities and experience.

 After reading and math, students take part in various household management


"We have laundry units, cooking units and cleaning units," said Ellison. "We've even gone through basic things such as how to clean a toilet bowl. I'll bring them right down to the bathroom, get out all the cleaning supplies, and each student will take a turn cleaning a toilet, if that's what we're working on, or learning how to clean a stove, how to clean a refrigerator, how to wash dishes, how to do laundry, how to mop the floor - all of those daily living skills."

One of the students' favorite units is cooking, which they do at least twice a week. They cook in small groups of four or five kids, led by a table captain, and each student is responsible for at least one of the steps in the cooking process so no one is just sitting back and watching.

Ellison has the kids make up menu plans out of the program's three cookbooks - microwave, gourmet foods, and quick cooking - and they pick out a breakfast, lunch and dinner meal using all four food groups so they have balanced meals. Then they decide which ones they're going to actually cook, check to see what supplies are already on hand in the cupboards, and assemble their grocery lists. 

"They have picture-oriented shopping cards that they take with them to the grocery store to buy the items they need," said



Then the students bring the groceries back to the classroom and cook them - twice.

"The first time, I want them to cook it whether they make mistakes or not," explained Ellison. "If they put sugar in instead of salt, or cumin instead of cinnamon, I'll let them sample it and ask them, 'What's wrong with that? Which step did you not follow correctly?' Then we cook it again and I make sure they cook it correctly. We always go over the mistakes, because I feel they learn more by being able to make those mistakes than if someone else does it for them. In life, we're allowed to make those mistakes so these guys should, too."

The class also works on social situations in the afternoon, such as the way to interact with other people and how to introduce themselves to someone else.

"We go bowling on Wednesdays because part of our education is also teaching appropriate recreation/leisure skills," said Ellison. 'We do fun stuff but the kids have to learn how to use those facilities - that's the purpose of the education. When they get out into the adult world, they should know what recreation/leisure things are out there and how to utilize them."

Once a month the class will go on field trips such as to Camp Confidence, Wolf Ridge Environmental Center, the Depot, or a tour of the Tower-Soudan Mine. The group also eats out at restaurants occasionally so the students can learn restaurant


In order to pay for those outings, the students participate in fund-raising activities that are also work-oriented, such as selling cookies, muffins and bagels in the school. Last year, some of the students worked for Widdes Feed, helping to bag bird seed, and collected cans for recycling at Southgate Bowl as well.


Many of them also spend part of their day in actual work settings such as stocking produce at Super One, cleaning at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, unpacking and putting away food boxes at Inter-Faith Care Center, and helping with food service at the Cloquet Middle School.

"The idea behind it is that they learn to work and hopefully flow into some type of competitive employment setting when they get done with school," said Ellison.

Ellison, who has now taught for 30 years, believes the key to career longevity depends on maintaining balance between job and personal life and keeping active on all fronts. To that end, he has served as the goalie coach for the CEC girls hockey program since its inception.

"Richard Bartholdi, who first started the program, initially started it as a U-12 program and asked me to help, since our daughters were both in the program at the time," said Ellison. "I told him I would, and I became the goalie coach. I'm proud to say that the goalies I stayed with over the years almost all went on to play Division One hockey - and the ones who didn't probably could have."

Ellison has been involved with the church choir at Queen of Peace and loves fishing and hunting as well as spending time with his wife, Terri, daughter Johanna, a history major in graduate school at St. Cloud, and son Matthew, a pre-veterinary student at the University of Minnesota Morris. He finds great satisfaction in all that he does, and he's quick to reflect on what it has meant to him.

"I still feel I went into the right field," he said. "It's kind of neat when you can still say that when you're towards the end of your career as well as at the beginning. I wouldn't trade this job for anything."

The plaque that Ellison received for his recent selection as the Minnesota "Special Educator of the Year," lauds him for "shining the light of self esteem" on his students. When he and fellow teacher Jerry Lassila were the recipients of the Minnesota Transition Planning Award of Excellence in 1998, they were praised for their use of "creativity, ingenuity and best practice strategies" in assisting students with disabilities to make the transition from high school to adult life. And though Ellison said he's honored by these accolades, his true satisfaction lies elsewhere. 

"As great as those rewards are," he mused, "it's been even better watching my graduates - working and out on their own in the world."

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