PHARR — Animating the motions of coach Veronica Muñiz, Carolina Vallejo makes “hamburger hands” demonstrating a visual cue to about 20 children inside the Berta Palacios Elementary School gym Thursday morning.

Following the instructions, the children gripped and lifted the red, green and yellow parachute as they circled around the object, continuing the game.

Vallejo has Down syndrome and graduated in May from Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district’s Pathways Toward Independence program, or PTI, which provides vocational training and independent living skills for special needs students. She also currently works at the district as an alumna and staff member.

The PTI program also offers employability skills and certificates through South Texas College, according to PSJA’s website.

Berta Palacios Elementary School Principal Michelle Cardoza said Vallejo also provided support in PE classes at the campus last year as a PTI student. The inclusion component also continues in the workforce, she said.

She currently assists Muñiz with demonstrations and helping children follow directions on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Last Thursday was the last day of summer enrichment camps, a four-day camp that can be thought of as a “soft opening” before classes start districtwide on Aug. 26.

This also provided a transition into the upcoming school year and expectations of Vallejo as a staff member, Cardoza said.

The principal along with other staff members also attended Vallejo’s graduation. Cardoza said the campus had PTI students before, but Vallejo stood out. With the summer enrichment camps going on during the week before school starts, it provided time to adjust for the year.

“The students already knew her, and so did the staff, and so it was very easy to welcome her back,” she said.

Veronica Muniz, PE coach, high fives Carolina Vallejo, right, former special needs student who graduated from PSJA’s Pathways Toward Independence Program in May. She helped young students at Berta Palacios Elementary on Thursday, Aug 22, 2019, in Pharr. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

She has always wanted to be a teacher, and this was a good setting for her, Cardoza said. Vallejo said she likes being a coach and teaching students, nodding her head and answering yes.

Vallejo helps elementary students follow rules and can help model directions for the coach, for example in how to throw a ball a certain way, the principal said. Leading students to the cafeteria were also a part of her duties last year when she was undergoing the PTI program.

As school children lined up to transition for another group to come in, Vallejo kneeled over, exchanging high-fives to the students as they sat down.

“She brought in the same enthusiasm that she had last year, so she’s adjusting very well,” Cardoza said.

The PSJA graduate would also keep a similar schedule when she was undergoing the PTI program, and follows Muñiz’s schedule with her PE teacher duties.

Muñiz said inclusion has been a part of the school’s culture. The school population is respectful toward each other and special needs staff and students, she said.

“She comes, she helps out, the kids respond to her very well,” Muñiz said.

Both the principal and the PE teacher expressed excitement and looking forward to working with Vallejo in the upcoming school year.

“She adds life to our campus … she’s a great individual, the way she interacts with the students, we love having her here,” Cardoza said.

Over 32,000 students of the district return to school on Monday across over 40 campuses for the upcoming school year.

Students at Berta Palacios Elementary have fun in PE class on Thursday, Aug 22, 2019, in Pharr. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])