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NORMAL — A Normal Community High School teacher will receive state-wide recognition Saturday for her special commitment to students.

Cynthia Behrens has been named the Veterans of Foreign Wars Illinois Teacher of the Year and will be recognized at the organization's convention in Springfield.

Behrens, a special education teacher, helps her students take advantage of opportunities available to other students. She helps them enter mainstream competitions including the VFW's annual essay and oratorical contest.

"She takes kids who normally won't have the opportunity to excel in an academic contest, and they do well," said Michael McManis, head coach of the speech team at Normal Community High School whose students have also entered the VFW contests in the past.

At the 59th annual Voice of Democracy banquet where Behrens will be honored, the 19 champions this year will also receive recognition. The theme was, "How I demonstrate my freedom."

Past student winners include journalist Charles Kuralt, former Miss America Anita Bryant, and former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Winners receive scholarships.

For five years, Behrens has helped her students enter the patriotic-themed contest. While not every special education teacher would think of submitting their students' work in such a scholarship for mainstream achievement, Behrens doesn't hesitate to do so. That was one of the reasons she is a Teacher of the Year Award, said Chuck Hartseil, director of special education for Unit 5 who has worked with Behrens for years.

"She's a strong believer of abilities and what they (her students) can achieve," said Hartseil.

Behrens takes the time to help her students with grammar and style and the basics, of good writing, said Jayne Runyon, fellow learning behavior specialist at Normal Community High School.

She shows them the practicality of good writing. By entering their work, the students have someone else judge them. It confirms to the student the positive reinforcement their special education teachers have been giving them, said Runyon.

Their essays/speeches compete with other high school students; one of Behrens' students placed third and won $75.

"They (student winners) attend a nice dinner with their parents. It's wonderful for everyone," said Runyon.

It's also valuable for a special education teacher to be recognized. These teachers aren't the ones mentioned in the valedictorian speeches, but they are important, Runyon said.

For Behrens, part of the reward is seeing faces of the students and the pride of their parents at the awards banquet.

"I'm very proud of all of my students and the opportunity that the VFW presents to them," Behrens said.

Jenny Sokulski, also a learning behavior specialist at Normal Community, said Behrens is caring and very motivating. She manages to find the strengths in her students and help them use their skills.

"The award is well deserved," said Sokulski.

"She has also exposed them to an opportunity of public speaking in an environment and in a form that is comfortable to them as well as educational," said Normal Community Principal Jeanette Nuckolls.

Last year, another member of the Unit 5 special education staff, Jane Collins of Normal Community West High School, was recognized by the Illinois State Board of Education teaching for self advocacy to students.

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