SOUTH LAKE TAHOE - When the regular special-education teacher was diagnosed with cancer, Heather Avila went from an aide to the full-time instructor.
Under her tutelage, the class has shined.
After graduating from South Tahoe High School and completing her college degree, Heather Avila now is a substitute teacher for the special-education class at the high school.
"I'm falling in love with them and creating this bond," Avila said. "It's so cool from the teacher end."
Avila is filling in for Teri Allmeroth, who has been diagnosed with liver cancer. Avila only planned on subbing for a few months, but she's now preparing for the rest of the year. She said she wants to have Allmeroth back and healthy as soon as possible.
According to the California Educational Code, a substitute may teach in a special-education classroom for 20 days and then teach 20 more days under the approval of the superintendent.
Beth Delacour, the human-resources director at Lake Tahoe Unified School District, said under extraordinary circumstances such as Allmeroth's situation, the superintendent can approve a replacement for the whole year.
The district is lucky that Avila is there because of the difficulty involved in finding a temporary special-education teacher with credentials, Delacour said.
To be certified, a teacher must earn a special-education credential - either a mild-moderate or a moderate-severe credential with an accredited university.
Avila holds a substitute permit and a degree in child development from Sacramento State and is working toward her special-education credentials through online classes.
Last year, Avila worked with Allmeroth's students as an instructional aide. She's been at the high school since 2003.
She said she has a good rapport with the students because of her previous time spent with them. The students have adjusted to her new role in the classroom.
"They were calling me Heather, and now I'm Miss A," she said.
Because of her own advancement, she said she serves as a role model for the students. Her situation shows students that if they work hard, they can move up, too.
As a single mother raising her 4-year-old son, Marty, Avila is able to multitask, which makes her flexible in the classroom, said instructional aide Joan Walthall.
Walthall also was an aide for Allmeroth last year and is working as Avila's aide this year.
Avila is doing a great job with the students, especially with her ability to connect with them, Walthall said.
"She can relate to kids individually and collectively in an engaging way," Walthall said.
For a student to be recommended for special education, an assessment is conducted by a qualified individual, then it is reviewed by a team that includes a parent and by school personnel in the special-education program. The recommendation is discussed, and an individual education program is implemented if there are no disagreements.
Parents have the right to disagree with the assessment and work with the school district for solutions.
STHS Principal Ivone Larson said the school is fortunate and grateful for Avila's commitment to the students.
Even though teaching can be challenging at times, Avila said she is enjoying the job.
"It's because I'm laughing every day," she said. After some pestering from her students, she added, "And because I have the best students."