Media attention has brought special needs, individuals, programs and research into the public eye recently. Local parents and officials provided insight into the special needs program at Pryor Public Schools.
According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, the Pryor Public School District served 334 children with disabilities, ages three through 21, in 2012. At that time, Pryor Public Schools employed 16 special education professionals.
One local mother, Jenny Peters, talked about her personal experience in the program with her son Ryan.
“The program as it is, is one of the best. I speak from experience in talking to parents in other districts whose children have similar issues,” said Peters. “When Lisa Walling came into the program, they were low on equipment and supplies. She was hired to have 10 students, she averages between 20 and 25 now.”
Peters’ son, Ryan, is autistic. She said autism is a spectrum disorder, in that every individual with autism is at a different place in the spectrum.
“A lot of people don’t understand autism. Autistic children almost function under a disguise. When people meet Ryan they don’t see it, they only see how much progress we’ve made,” said Peters.
“Lisa told me she didn’t have any autistic kids in her class at first, then slowly she got two or three, then all of a sudden half of her kids were autistic,” said Peters. “She has successfully mainstreamed half of her 26 students, including Ryan.”
Peters said mainstreaming is taking kids with special needs and accommodating their sensory issues in a regular classroom with regularly developing kids. She says this gives the students with special needs examples of positive behaviors to model from, and gives other students exposure to differently developing children.
Peters described a typical day for her son in the special needs program at Lincoln Elementary School, crediting her son’s success to the program.
“On a typical day, they come in and put away their stuff in their cubby, then they have rug time where they do the pledge of allegiance and things like that. Then they have blue mat time which is physical activity that helps them focus. Then they break off into center time, like a traditional class room,” said Peters.
Peters said Ryan is hypo-sensitive, which means it takes his brain longer to process his physical movement.
“When Ryan started in Mrs. Walling’s class he couldn’t write his name, now he can write his name and draw pictures. He is doing so well,” said Peters. “His social skills have improved tremendously as well.”
Another mom, Brandy Littlefield has a son in the special needs program. Her son Thatcher, now six years old, has been in the program since he was three. Thatcher is autistic and has hypertonia. She describes hypertonia as, “rag doll syndrome” that results in underdeveloped muscles.
“When Thatcher began the program he couldn’t sit in a chair for more than 30 seconds, and he couldn’t button or zip his own pants,” said Littlefield.
Littlefield said Individualized Education Programs play a huge part in a student’s success.
Any student with delayed skills or other disabilities are eligible for special services, including IEPs. Parents work with the educators to develop the students plan, which sets goals for the child during the year, as well as describing what the student needs to achieve those goals.
IEPs can include changes to daily routine including duration of school days, meal times and nap times, for example.
In Ryan’s case, the IEP involved incorporating his mother’s discipline system of positive reinforcement and a time out chair, into his classroom. Peters said this consistency was necessary for Ryan to succeed.
Thatcher’s IEP includes ankle weights, an indoor swing to calm himself, and headphones.
“He wears headphones because of his hearing sensitivity. When other kids have meltdowns, it sets him off so the headphone really help.”
Specialized equipment, like weight vests, earphones and sensory items are also worked into a student’s IEP. Littlefield explained that in Thatcher’s most recent IEP, he has someone to help him button and zip his pants, which makes his day go a lot smoother.
“The room was a typical classroom when Walling got there. Now there’s an indoor jungle gym, a playhouse, adult weight swings, a loft, and touch screen computers,” said Peters.
“The touch screen computers are great, they help Thatcher a lot. He loves computers and is really great at them,” said Littlefield. “Even their playground is tailored for special needs kids, which is comforting for parents.”
Pryor Public School Superintendent Don Raleigh discussed the special needs program.
“We put a strong emphasis on trying to raise the program to a higher level,” said Raleigh. “When we had stimulus money a few years ago, we got new equipment and technology that would directly benefit the children.”
Raleigh said the school put in two new handicap playgrounds, hired aids, para-professionals and teachers.
“We are always looking for new technology and research is showing these technologies directly help students,” said Raleigh. “It helps them focus which directly benefits their education.”
Raleigh said teachers are encouraged to apply for grants for anything that could improve their classroom. Recently, with a physical education grant, a rock climbing wall was added in each school. At Lincoln, the rock climbing wall was made handicap accessible.
Raleigh said the co-op is at Lincoln Elementary, but there is a special needs classroom in every school, including the junior high and high school.
“Recently the high school age special needs class has been moved to the high school building so they can benefit from being around students their own age. We have also put a big emphasis on our Special Olympics.”
Raleigh, and the mothers, admit that the program faces challenges, like any other.
“Miscommunication and butting heads causes problems in any program, especially special needs programs,” said Peters. “People often mistake the school as being the bad guy. And unfortunately, some parents misdirect their frustrations with their child’s disorder toward the teachers.”
Peters said parents are often the only advocate for their child, but they also need to compromise with schools.
“We’ve had issues, but it’s nothing we can’t work through,” said Littlefield. “Parents need to know what they should ask for, even great programs can only go so far.”
Raleigh said the faculty is key to the program’s overall success.
“Our faculty is very dedicated, invested and committed. They care about their kids, which is not something you always find in public schools,” said Raleigh. “Most of our teachers have been here over five years, and that stability is good for the kids. We’re very lucky,” Raleigh said.
Peters said the devoted faculty have made all the difference in her child’s life.
“I’ve personally been very blessed with Mrs. Walling. She cares for every single child,” said Peters, “She used her own time and resources to create a chew thing and wrist blanket for Ryan.”
Peters said these two items were Walling’s own creation. These original items meet Ryan’s sensory needs, without subjecting him to ridicule from classmates.
“It’s great to have a teacher willing to talk to you,” said Littlefield. “Being able to communicate with a teacher is crucial, especially when you have a non-verbal child. It’s not as if Thatcher can come home and tell me how he did that day.”
Raleigh described the alliance that must be formed between educators and parents.
“Good dialogue and good relationships with parents are crucial. We have to have a willingness to work together,” said Raleigh. “We are devoted to this program. We aren’t just throwing dollars at it, we’re throwing commitment at it.”