Special and skilled
Concerted help for special-needs kids is a bright spot for schools
When 12-year-old Bill Ashmun began seventh grade at Fernwood Middle School last fall, he barely had any concept of numbers and was just starting to read.
Now, he's a whiz at flashcards, loves to read aloud and is learning to count by fives, as he did last week with his teacher, Bruce Teborek.
'Seventy-five cents!' Bill shouts after getting through a pile of nickels with just a few mistakes.
'Bingo. Nice going, bud,' Teborek said, marking his progress on a sheet.
Counting money, along with crossing the street, telling time and even learning to bowl are all part of the skills taught to special-education students in Portland Public Schools' Life Skills program.
Created in the mid-1980s, the program serves children who are unable to learn in mainstream classes because of mental retardation (an IQ of 70 or below), communication disorders or medical conditions such as autism, epilepsy or Down syndrome.
Each of the small Life Skills classrooms of nine or so students include a couple of trained teaching assistants, so there is about a 3-1 ratio of teachers to students.
In all, the district has 24 Life Skills classrooms scattered throughout the elementary, middle and high schools, serving 216 students this year.
The program is supported by $4.7 million in general fund money this year, and $4.9 million is proposed for next year.
Another $1.7 million ($1.8 million proposed for next year) funds the Life Skills nursing program for students who are so medically fragile that the school bus picks them up from the hospital. In addition, $732,000 ($761,000 proposed for next year) goes to the Life Skills Community Transition Center program, which helps students after graduation.
'I have the greatest kids'
In Teborek's class, students function at various levels. Some take their meals through feeding tubes; others have worn diapers until just recently. Some work quietly, cautiously, while others, like Bill, are bursting with energy.
Teborek enjoys working with the kids, getting to know their personalities and seeing them experience success.
'I think I have the greatest kids in the school,' says Teborek, a bearded, bespectacled instructor who's been teaching his Life Skills class at Fernwood since 1988. 'Most teenagers don't want anything to do with an adult. These kids are very dependent on adults. They don't have their peer groups to consider.'
According to a report released last week by the Oregon Department of Education, the state saw a slight increase in the number of special-ed students this year, in part due to the overall rise in students and in part due to better diagnoses of their conditions. The biggest growth is among children diagnosed with autism.
The number of the district's special-ed students has remained flat despite declining overall enrollment. In an environment where public schools get a bad rap for not being able to meet the needs of all students, Life Skills is the exception, teachers and parents say.
Field trips teach a lot, too
'I wanted to put her someplace where she'll feel good about herself,' says Yvonne Gibson, mother of 14-year-old Sarah, a curly-haired seventh-grader with cerebral palsy in Teborek's class. 'I want her challenged but not overly pushed so she can't cope. She has good self-esteem, and that comes from what comes out of the classroom.'
Like everyone in Teborek's class, Sarah moves at her own pace. She sees an occupational therapist and speech therapist during the day, and works with an adapted PE teacher on her motor skills because she walks with some difficulty.
With the help of Teborek's allotted two and a half teaching assistants, Sarah also takes health education, computer lab, reading, math, money skills, foreign language, music and other real-life lessons designed to promote self-confidence and independence.
They take public transportation and go bowling once a week, visit rescue missions to help feed the hungry and take trips to the symphony and other cultural events. They have recess and lunch with the rest of the Fernwood kids, and take classes with the general population as their skills allow.
'Sarah's learned so much in the last two years,' her mother said. 'She's learning how to get along in the community. She has just blossomed.'
Teaching quells the teasing
It's Sarah's second year in Life Skills; from second to third grade, she was in a self-contained class of special-ed students at Kenton and Woodlawn elementary schools.
In sixth grade, though, Gibson said she panicked when the district did away with the self-contained classrooms and moved toward inclusion of special-ed students in the mainstream population. Teaching assistants provide extra help as needed in a special resource room.
It works for those kids who can glean some information from the lesson, Gibson said, but Sarah has lower-functioning skills and would be completely lost without the extra attention that Life Skills provides. 'It's been a lifesaving thing for her,' she said.
One of Sarah's classmates, 12-year-old Dont'e Thomas, isn't a special-needs student but spends his time flipping flashcards and assisting the students with other one-on-one activities in Teborek's classroom as a volunteer helper, and as an elective course.
'They're cool,' Dont'e said of the Life Skills students. 'Tim and Billy were on our (baseball) team. We almost got to the finals.'
Teborek said his students relate well to the rest of the kids at Fernwood, and vice versa. It's rare that there's a case of 'exploitation,' which is when he catches a child trying to get one of his students to do something stupid on the playground.
If someone is caught doing that, he said, he or she is often assigned to spend a day in a Life Skills classroom to get a new perspective on his students.
In his nearly two decades as a Life Skills teacher, however, he's found that his classroom provides a kind of diversity on campus that is unparalleled.
Teasing reflects 'people being uncomfortable with special-needs kids,' he says. 'It's my job to be teaching them.'