Before Julianna Araujo arrived at Arlington’s Wakefield High School in 2017, the program for children with autism was located in an isolated part of the building. Araujo changed that, making sure her special education students were part of the school community.
“When Ms. Araujo took over, things changed on day one!” says Alfred Reid, a counselor at the school. “Many eyebrows raised [when] this young, dynamic educator brought her class into the main town hall during lunch [and] seated [them] up front during assemblies.”
Araujo strives to include students who have autism in everyday school activities. “The parents are astounded when they experience a teacher who repeatedly recruits their neurodiverse teenager to attend Friday night football games, wear celebratory attire during school spirit week, ride a charter bus for a sleepover in Richmond, join the track team, and dance until midnight at prom,” says Lisa Ohm, a Wakefield colleague.
Araujo fell into teaching by accident. While she was getting her undergraduate degree in counseling, she worked as a substitute teacher in an autism classroom at Glen Forest Elementary School in Falls Church. There, she became passionate about helping children who have trouble communicating their emotions, particularly those who have problems with aggression.
“I was actually offered a counseling position, but I didn’t want to leave these kids,” Araujo says. “I was invested in helping them do well. Most people don’t see these kids’ potential, but I did.” So she switched her major.
Students, parents, and colleagues say they are grateful that the Teacher of the Year finalist chose this path. At Wakefield, she founded the Special Olympics program, which is now recognized internationally. As a sponsor of the student government program, she noticed that the school’s leadership didn’t reflect its diversity, so she implemented a new procedure to select members and officers.
“Prior to her arrival at our school, inclusion was a word that had a negative connotation and diverse meant separate and unequal,” says Lisa Labella, senior project coordinator at Wakefield. “Today, it has a totally different meaning and all that go to school and work here are proud to see that we are [a] hub of inclusiveness and proud of the diversity of our students and staff.”
This story originally appeared in our October 2022 issue’s Teacher of the Year cover story. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.