Friday, March 23, 2018

Angie O’Leary teaches multiplication to her fifth grade students at Lodge Grass Elementary School. As director of the school’s special education program, O’Leary is assisted by new teachers Lark Paz and Jeanette Hoops.

Combine ‘two worlds’

LG special education brought into regular classroom environment
Lodge Grass Elementary School has revamped its special education program into a more “strategic, structured” system, according to Principal Melanie Ferguson, based on serving students in their regular classroom environment.
Of the school’s 165 students, an estimated 50 are in the special education program.
“The restructuring and rearranging occurred in September,” Ferguson said. “We got wheels on it and actually implemented it mid-September to early October.”
Keeping special education students within the regular classroom rather than their own section, according to program director Angie O’Leary, allows students to “learn a lot from their peers.” Students in the program do some work in their regular classroom and then contextualize what they learned in a specialized classroom – also known as the school’s resource room.
“You can combine the two worlds,” O’Leary said. “You’re combining what they learn in their classroom and then you’re individualizing it to their needs.
“The main areas we look at are reading, writing and math, but that encompasses all subjects.”
This is O’Leary’s second year teaching in Lodge Grass, and her 10th year working as an educator overall. She has spent seven of those years teaching special education in Sheridan, Wyo. as well as in Lodge Grass.
O’Leary – also a fifth grade teacher at the school – is assisted by new special education teachers Lark Paz and paraprofessional Jeanette Hoops (often referred to by her nickname, “Bambi”). According to O’Leary, most of her special education-related work involves referrals and filling out papers – Paz and Hoops focus on the more hands-on tasks.
Paz, who earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Montana State University-Bozeman, is certified to teach both Native American studies and special education. Her prior teaching experience ranges from students in preschool to college. She a member of the Crow Tribe, a sister of the Big Lodge clan (mother’s side) and daughter of the Whistling Water (father’s side).
Hoops attended college at MSU-Billings and Little Big Horn College, and is certified in paraprofessional work. She also belongs to the Crow Tribe, and is a sister of the Bad War Deeds clan and daughter of the Greasy Mouth.
“They’ll walk around the classrooms and work with [students] at their desks,” O’Leary said. “They also help other students as they go, so it doesn’t single them out.”
Once Paz gains enough experience, Ferguson said, she’ll take over the program from O’Leary.
Paz said she keeps a low profile when taking students out of their regular classes and tries to “make learning fun.” She works mostly with sixth graders at present and believes she has developed a good rapport with them.
“As new people coming in, once school started, [students] had to figure out and trust us. We didn’t dive in and say, ‘This is what you’re doing,’” Paz said. “Trust-building was the first thing I needed to do.”
“The first month, we were building that trust and engaging with them, learning along with them,” Hoops added.
One of the things Paz discovered about the students is they often respond better when addressed in the Crow language, and she happens to be a fluent speaker. The students “touched my heart,” she said, when she heard them sing to the “Crow Flag Song” as it was played over the intercom before the start of school. She decided to sing along.
Students are assigned tasks based on their Individualized Education Programs, a legal document required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for every child receiving special education.
One student’s IEP states they need 15 minutes of reading per day, Paz said, showing a picture book he was set to read on how water can be turned into energy. After he reads the story, she continued, the student will tell her what he learned and write about hydropower.
Other students need to develop social skills, so she organizes lessons to help them work together as a team and solve problems. This according to Paz, is more useful than telling them about the importance of socializing in a traditional student-teacher format.
O’Leary, Paz and Hoops’ work, Ferguson said, will help Lodge Grass Elementary students ultimately catch up “on all their skill deficits, so they become grade level.” Not all of the students Paz and Hoops bring to their classroom are with the special education program – some are just struggling.
“Test scores have not been taken seriously over the years [and] we have a history of scores that are less than they should be,” Ferguson said. “We have about 10 percent who [tested] at grade level out of 165 students; in working with those students every day, I’m thinking it’s more like…about 30 percent or 40 percent, which is still not good enough.
“We start here, help those who have the greatest need and then we rebuild up.”
Despite their efforts, Paz and Hoops run into behavioral problems from students. Shortly before her interview, Paz carried a young student back to class, because he refused to return on his own.
“Every day is a challenge,” said Paz and Hoops at the same time before laughing. Nonetheless, if they can move the children just a bit further forward each day, they feel their work is worth it.