Crystal Palmer’s second-grade students at Milton West Elementary stood in a circle as one by one they gave each other two-handed low fives.
It is part of the class’s normal morning greeting.
Two students needed help. The adult staffers attached to each student—called paraprofessionals—guided the kids to partners and then pressed a button on a small green device.
“Good morning,” said an automated voice.
The two are special needs students who struggle with verbal communication. Despite their developmental challenges and always having an extra helper nearby, the students learned the same lessons in the same classroom as the kids without special needs.
Milton’s special education program came under scrutiny last month in a Facebook post. Someone claimed a special needs student was allowed to kick and bite other students while wandering the building, according to a blog post written by Mark Gavigan, a paraprofessional at Milton High School.
The Facebook post included misinformation, and comments turned vulgar. Some people threatened physical violence or directed curse words toward the child, according to the blog.
The disparaging remarks made it clear the public doesn’t understand special education, causing Gavigan to get “fired up” and write the piece, he said.
“Special ed is so diverse. It’s not just one group of kids you might think of when you think special ed,” he said. “There’s so many branches that stem off the special ed tree. I was taken aback by the vulgarity of the comments they were using.”
Not every special education student has the same needs. Some spend most of their days accompanied by paraprofessionals, who guide academic lessons and act as a calming presence.
Others just need to fidget or have extra room. Those kids might have a toy to play with or chew on, or they might sit at a separate table.
For Palmer, finding the balance between teaching regular students and those with special needs is “pretty flawless,” she said. She credited the district’s individualized education programs for finding ways to reach all kids.
Those programs are personalized guidelines for each special needs student. They help Palmer know what each student needs extra help on, but the same knowledge is necessary for any child, she said.
Jenny Schwandt is an intellectual disabilities teacher in Palmer’s class. She’s been in special education for 31 years, and when she first started, special needs students were kept isolated in separate buildings, she said.
That philosophy has since disappeared. It’s better to integrate all students because it gives them opportunities to improve their social skills, she said.
“I love having the access to the regular ed classroom. It’s just rich with educational opportunities, not only for the kids but for myself,” Schwandt said. “Kids love to learn from kids. That’s ideal for them to be able to observe and hear all that language going on.”
Students without learning or cognitive disabilities benefit, too. They learn a young age how to help others and to be inclusive, she said.
At this level of special education, the focus is largely on basic educational and behavioral skills. At the high school, lessons transition to functional academics and preparation for future employment, high school intellectual disabilities teacher Alex Kitchner said.
Students in Kitchner’s class, which consists entirely of special needs students, spent a recent afternoon doing vocational training. Some worked on puzzles or practiced organizational work, such as sorting items into compartments or putting plastic utensils into bags.
Those activities mimicked real-world assembly or packaging jobs, he said.
Kitchner and his team of paraprofessionals kept records for every student on each activity. One boy who spent the class putting rubber parts into containers was ecstatic when he learned he had doubled his previous personal best.
As the students worked, Kitchner cracked sarcastic jokes with them. The kids seemed to enjoy his humor, and some retorted with their own sarcasm.
“A lot of times when I first get students and I am sarcastic or I joke around with them a little bit, they may not catch it. They may not know I’m being sarcastic, which is OK,” he said. “Those are the skills we really try to develop, as well, because when they leave Milton High School, people are going to be sarcastic, and they’re going to be nonliteral. They’re really integral skills kids need.”
Students who were feeling more anxious or weren’t in the mood for jokes could go into a separate room to do their work. They were accompanied by a paraprofessional if they did so.
The same concept of letting kids move from place to place was evident in Palmer’s second-grade class. As she taught, students could leave the carpet and sit at a table where they felt more comfortable.
Gone are the days of kids sitting cross-legged with hands folded neatly in their laps for an entire lesson.
“The student is focusing so hard on sitting still and not making noise and being uncomfortable, they’re not open to learning,” Student Services Director Susan Probst said. “The student might lose a couple seconds from moving to a chair, but if they’re focused after they sit in their new place, then they’re gaining more than if they had been forced to sit where they were expected to sit, in that row, in that seat, with their feet perfectly straight.”
Gavigan said he hoped his blog post would help the community understand that special needs kids have good and bad days, just like any other person.
Schwandt has tried to integrate her students into the public by periodically taking them to a restaurant or store. She spends a few days preparing the kids so they know what to expect, she said.
Many times on those trips, other customers are enamored with the kids, she said.
Seeing those special needs students in person almost always elicits a positive reaction, rather than leading to vulgarity from behind a keyboard.
“These kids a lot of times perceive the world differently than we do,” Schwandt said. “We assume because they don’t perceive it just like us, that they don’t understand or they don’t fit in.
“But really, we can learn so much from them just by getting a glimpse of how they perceive the world.”