As the clock strikes 9:00 A.M, a loud, high-pitched bell rings through the halls of Lake Elmo Elementary School. As the day begins, Margy Butala's kindergarten and first-grade classroom is a flurry of activity. Paraprofessional Lorri Shortridge is relaxing Noah's clenched fists as he sits in his wheelchair, head cocked to one side. Another aide, Cindy McClung, is instructing Colin to “point to [his] tummy” and identify other body parts. Meanwhile, Charlie has entered the classroom and is running around in a fit of agitation over washing his grimy hands. Margy is reading with Jordan by holding a flashcard with the word “horse” and having him point to the corresponding picture. Over the P.A. system, “The Star Spangled Banner” begins its brassy fanfare. Charlie temporarily stops his tantrum and everyone looks towards the flag in patriotic reverence.
There is no typical day in the primary special education room. Ordinary and unusual are synonymous since each day varies, depending on the dynamics and emotional state of each student. Today, four children are absent, three due to illness, and the others are excited for the upcoming holiday and the activities involved. However, for these very reasons, the day is normal. In a school district of 6172 students, Lake Elmo is a “cluster” site for special education. Autism and cerebral palsy are the most common disabilities. The largest challenge for the teachers is to meet the needs of each individual student, given the limited resources. Despite these obstacles, Lake Elmo has a remarkably successful program, as demonstrated by test scores, and more indicative, individual student success. According to the state-issued report card, 36.36% of Lake Elmo special education students achieved proficiency on the MCA II test (Minnesota's state standardized test), compared to 28.57% district-wide and 25.37% state-wide with over 95% of the students tested on this standards-based test.
Even from the design of the school, it is apparent that integration is a major goal. Weaving through the maze of hallways, regular and special education classrooms share the primary wing. Ramps replace stairwells so the halls are wheelchair-friendly. In 2004, the school added a new playground with complete handicap access, including two adaptive swings and a wheelchair-accessible sand table.
Margy's classroom is divided into cubicles like a miniature office. There is a “work” section where students match pictures and read, a computer station, a “play” corner and a large group area. Every cubicle has colorful bins with pictures identifying their contents. The room differs from the mainstream class down the hall: the students do not remain in tables or desks as the teacher writes on the chalkboard, but those who are able check their customized schedules and work at their own pace, guided by an instructor. As Colin finishes his first “work” time, he walks over to his name and takes the next task from the Velcro line. He then goes to the computer area, his next assignment. All of the students are enamored with the computer, staring at the pixels as they orchestrate music by pointing and clicking. Later, Colin will bike and work, have a snack, quiet time and large group time and go to music and gym class.
Although they are constrained by their wheelchairs and also non-verbal, Jordan and Noah are considered slightly higher functioning than Charlie and Colin. Jordan and Noah love to read and can recognize the spellings of common words with their corresponding pictures. Most of the academic curriculum is visual, with pictorial instructions. As Margy reads with Jordan, she asks, “Which word is 'horse'?” holding a flashcard with a cartoon horse. Jordan, after several attempts, successfully points at “horse” on his placemat. His accomplishment is rewarded with “Good job, smart boy! Let's sing your farm song.” Jordan smiles as Margy sings the “Old McDonald” refrain.
Although she has been teaching for eight years, an “old-timer” in the department, Margy Butala looks more like a college student than a seasoned educator. Even though she describes special education as having a “high burnout factor,” Margy has overwhelming energy as she simultaneously places Jordan in a vertical position in his “stander,” watches Charlie, and talks to Lorri about the day's plans. Margy's paraprofessionals are Lorri Shortridge and Cindy McClung. According to Rhonda Schad, an aide in the district's Early Childhood Special Education program, Lorri and Cindy are “the best of the best.” The paraprofessionals either have a teacher certification or have passed a district exam. They work closely with the students but are not directly responsible for IEPs or parent conferences. Especially with the class near capacity, the paraprofessionals are a crucial part of the program's success.
Meanwhile, Charlie, a stout six year old who is autistic and non-verbal, has resumed his act. He has been upset recently and his inability to communicate with words often results in displays of frustration. According to a recent feature in Time, autism is “increasingly seen as a pervasive problem with the way the brain is wired,” making it difficult for the child to communicate, often resulting in behaviors such as head-banging, punching or stomping. Charlie kicks off his shoes, and sobbing, runs into the most recent innovation to the classroom: the “break room” where the kids can sit on gym mats and blankets if they are having a difficult time. Margy said that the students are very good at using the break room responsibly and it has been a “wonderful addition” to the classroom. Before last year, according to Minnesota State Law 121A.66 Subd. 7 (3), teachers were not allowed to have a “time-out” room which “involuntarily remov[ed] the pupil from the school activity during the school day…in a specially designed and continuously supervised isolation room” because to do so would be to “deny the child an education.” The “break room,” however, is not a “time-out” room; it is a voluntary choice that students can make and thus far, has worked well, especially for controlling the “domino effect” of upset children.
Cindy attempts to console Charlie. Handing him his “PEX system,” a book with “I want ___” and Velcro pictures to answer this question, he selects “computer.” Since many of the students are “non-verbal,” they can communicate with the instructors with the “PEX” system as a way to express their emotions and desires.
“Not now, Charlie,” Cindy says, pointing to the computer cubicle, “Colin is on the computer now. Let's do some work first.” Sulkily, Charlie heads over to the work station, but not before emphatically pointing at his PEX. “First work, then computer,” agrees Cindy. Charlie is satisfied and begins matching pictures of food, animals and toys to their appropriate categories.
Compared to the mainstream classroom, the learning environment is less academic focused and more “functional.” The program uses what Margy refers to as “Best Practices Teaching”: utilizing the best of each learning theory (such as ABA and Floor Time) to “combine learning styles to reach all kids and learning modes.” The children learn social skills and how to live independently since many may not have “typical jobs” in adulthood. Snack time is built into each day, and each child will pick from his “box” a snack and feed himself. Many of the five- and six-year-old students are wearing diapers and require toilet training. Accepted social behaviors are emphasized so the students can, according to Cindy, “assimilate with their mainstream peers.”
Charlie was aggravated by the “feel” of clothing, so he had to be taught to keep his clothes and shoes on during school. Today, he is wearing a fluorescent tie-dyed T-shirt and dark green flannel pajama pants.
Many of the students in Margy's classroom are not new to the semi-formal learning environment. Both Charlie and Colin previously attended classes with Early Childhood Special Education, a district-subsidized preschool program, and most will continue with special education classes through high school. The goal of the program is for the special-needs children to be as integrated with their mainstream peers as possible. Depending on the “functioning” level of the students, they may spend more or less time in the regular classroom. Mainstreaming is based on the child's age rather than developmental level. Lake Elmo Elementary School has been a “cluster” site for the district's “severe” special education population since the 1970s; currently 12% of the school's 739 students are classified as “special education,” according to the Minnesota Department of Education. Often, students will go to this school rather than their neighborhood school because of the successful program. This pattern is slowly seeing a reversal, with the district increasingly encouraging disabled students to attend their neighborhood schools.
Mainstreaming is designed to benefit not only those students with learning impediments, but the mainstream children as well. Margy and the paraprofessionals go into the mainstream classrooms, beginning in kindergarten, and talk to the other students about their special-needs peers. The teachers assign “special friends” to play with and help the special education students. According to the school's website, “special education students are taught in the 'least restrictive environment'…they remain in their general education classrooms with same-aged peers as much as they can tolerate and is deemed appropriate.” By achieving as much integration as possible, the school hopes to foster a greater understanding and empathy in the mainstream classroom, accruing benefits for all students.
By fourth grade, the students are seemingly accepting of their special-needs classmates. Kyle, who was in Margy's room three years ago, runs around the classroom showing his art project, exclaiming, “A Turkey! A Turkey!”
The excitement is contagious: a girl at another table approaches Kyle and says, “Look what I made, Kyle. Do you like it?” Throughout the project, a paraprofessional sits near Kyle and helps him cut the brown construction paper, but Kyle is able to do most of the work by himself. He returns to the front table for the third time in five minutes to get more embellishments for his project.
Back in the primary room, the class has calmed down: Colin is working tenaciously at the computer, Jordan is slowly feeding himself applesauce and Noah is biking the hallway with the occupational therapist. Charlie is no longer upset, but shrieking with glee as he correctly matches the picture of a bear below the “animal” category, giving his audience a wide, gap-toothed smile. “What people don't realize,” says Lorri, “are all the small, incremental steps that must be achieved before we hit the big goal and the tremendous amount of time and energy that go towards a 'simple' task.”
“When they do make progress,” Margy says, “it is so rewarding.”
Butala, Margy. Personal interview. 22 November 2006.
Lake Elmo Elementary School. 20 November 2006.
McClung, Cindy. Personal interview. 22 November 2006.
Schad, Rhonda. Personal interview. 25 November 2006.
School Board Meeting Minutes. 5 February 2004. Stillwater School District 834. 30 November 2006.
Shortridge, Lorri. Personal interview. 22 November 2006.
Star Results-All School. 2005. Minnesota Department of Education. 20 November 2006.
Student Discipline. 2005. Minnesota Department of Education. 26 November 2006.
Wallis, Claudia. “Inside the Autistic Mind.” Time Magazine. 7 May 2006. 30 November 2006.
A New Look at Lake Elmo Elementary. 24 October 2005. District 834 News Archives. 30 November 2006.
Adams, Lois and Deanna Sands and Donna Stout. “A Statewide Exploration of the Nature and Use of Curriculum in Special Education.” Exceptional Children. Vol 62 (1995). 30 November 2006.
Allis, Sam. “The Struggle to Pay for Special Education” Time Magazine. 4 November 2006. 5 December 2006.
Christoffer, Erica. “State Releases Date, 25 Schools in District 196 Make AYP.” Sun Newspapers. 22 November 2006. 28 November 2006.
Lake Elmo Elementary School. 2006. Great Schools 2 December 2006.