South Dakota school celebrates 30 years of special education

September 10, 2018

YANKTON, S.D. (AP) — For more than 30 years, Yankton’s Stewart School has had an entire wing of its building dedicated to providing special education services.

“It’s been around since 1987, and was kind of created on a napkin by Joyce Wentworth, our former director of student services,” said Jerome Klimisch, principal of Stewart Elementary School. “She got to be the design person with Linda Balfany, the special education teacher.”

Stewart School, which was built in 1966, was a good fit because it was fully accessible to students with physical disabilities. In addition to the usual classrooms, The SPED wing includes an office for a speech therapist, a physical therapy room, an occupational therapy room, an outdoor playground in the back and a kitchen.

“The original plans included a working kitchen so kids could learn life skills and do laundry,” Klimisch told the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan . “Life skills are important for kids in Special Ed.”

Today, Stewart School enrolls about 300 children in all, and almost a third are in special ed.

“It turned into something that I think is a fabulous special ed program in the area.” Klimisch said. “We have probably 90 students on IEPs (Individualized Education programs). Given the size of our school, we have a good representation of Special Education kids.”

As far as the 90 kids in the special education program, Klimisch notes, every one of them is on a different tailor-made IEP, and staff tries to reach out to those children by tapping into how they learn.

“I’ve always said, I think I’ve learned more from them than they have learned from me over the years,” he said. When you talk about special education, it truly is a special program and a special need.”

The laws regarding special education have changed a lot in 30 years, and now school districts are required to offer services to those that qualify from as early as birth until age 21.

“One thing people probably don’t realize is, the youngest kid I have worked with would be six weeks old, right out of the hospital,” said Cody Lukkes, who teaches Early Childhood Special Education. “They got connected with Birth to Three and if they qualify for prolonged assistance, the school district provides all of that: the occupational therapist, physical therapist, speech therapist and myself, as the early childhood special ed teacher.”

For those younger than 3 years old, Lukkes provides in-home instruction weekly, monthly or quarterly, depending on what would be of most benefit to the child.

When they turn 3, the children can receive services at Stewart School.

“They come celebrate their third birthday with me a lot of times, that’s when they can start at Stewart,” Lukkes said. “We are the only school that has an Early Intervention Program. It’s different from the Preschool Program at Webster: that’s for anyone. For Early Intervention, you have to have a delay of some sort to qualify. My program’s not preschool; we’re just working on those skills to keep them caught up with the rest of the kids.”

From the moment they get to school, all students are expected to adhere to standards of behavior.

“At the beginning of every year, I send (to parents) my expectations for when the kids enter my classroom,” Lukkes said. “I know they are 3, but they get bullet points for about 10 things that, ‘this is what my expectation is and this is our goal.’”

Klimisch concurred. “I think we have high expectations for special education kids,” he said. “We don’t baby and do things for them because they don’t learn anything if we would do that. We try to push that on to parents, too, that it’s important.”

Of the 13 categories of disabilities provided for by special education, Stewart School has helped children with delays and disabilities in many of those categories through the years, including: deaf students, blind students, students with autism, Down syndrome and general learning disabilities, non-verbal students and those with more severe disabilities.

But SPED students and teachers don’t spend all their time in the SPED wing.

“I might teach 3- and 4-year olds, but that doesn’t mean if (another teacher) is having an issue, we don’t all work together,” Lukkes said. “PT, OT, it’s a big family. If we know there’s an issue in a room, we all help out. It’s not like we just stick to our room. We don’t even keep our kids in our rooms; sometimes we will go to other rooms just to get the kids used to being around other people.”

Every attempt is made to mainstream the children from the SPED wing into regular classrooms so they can participate in school with their classmates, and so their classmates can get to know them.

“We have a poster hung up in the conference room, ‘If a disability is all that you see, you are missing out on.’ and it lists all these other strengths,” Klimisch said. “We are trying to build on students’ strengths, not focus on their disability or their weakness. We serve all kids, we like to help all kids, take the potential and build on it, bring each to their full potential.”

Lukkes and Angela Haffner, a Stewart Resource Room teacher, are planning a Disability of the Month Awareness Day.

“One day each month, we will recognize a disability at school and give a brief description to help students understand a little bit about different disabilities here at Stewart School, and then maybe say, wear this color for this awareness,” Lukkes explained.

Many of the Early Intervention students will go on to kindergarten at their home-base schools, Klimisch said, and those with behavioral issues will likely go on to Beadle Elementary School’s Special Education Program.

But all the children will take their Stewart School experience with them.

“We have heard from parents and people from middle school, that Stewart School kids really do grow up, having grown up with kids with special needs, having patience to work them, beside them and understand them,” Klimisch said. “One day, a young lady came in (to the school) and she introduced herself, and she said, ‘I just want you guys to know, I went here to Stewart School all through my elementary years, and because I was with special education students, they were in my classroom and I got to know them as kids and as people, I grew up and went to school to be a special education teacher in Minnesota. I give Stewart School credit for my love for working with special needs kids.’

Parents are also encouraged to communicate with the teachers in the SPED program.

“We are very dependent on parents also,” said Annette Haberman, occupational therapist for the school district. “They have information that we need. It’s such a partnership and when it works that way, it works best.”

One of the ways the district locates kids that need special education services is through preschool screens, which are coming up this month.

“I tell parents, if you have questions, bring them in for a screen, because then you know,” Lukkes said. “They are their child’s voice and advocate, ’If you don’t understand something, ask. We’re here to help; we want your kids to be just as successful as you want your kids to be.”


Information from: Yankton Press and Dakotan, http://www.yankton.net/