Celebrating Small Victories

Children with severe disabilities are treated with compassion at local public school and privately owned therapy center

(page 3 of 3)

Shannon Griffin

Gretchen Everhart school serves over 200 children with disabilities from Tallahassee and surrounding areas, equipping them with not only teachers, but also registered nurses, speech pathologists and physical therapists to ensure their needs are met. 

Gretchen Everhart

Children with significant disabilities other than autism often have the same needs as children with autism. Many of the strategies that are used with autistic children at Gretchen Everhart have been found to be effective on children with other disabilities.  

Some students at Gretchen Everhart have autism along with other severe intellectual disabilities. Others face different challenges, such as severe birth defects; but Bullen says they don’t worry much about the diagnosis — just on giving the best instruction and intervention.

“Often the strategies used for students on the (autistic) spectrum are also appropriate for children with other significant disabilities, just individualized for the student,” says Bullen. “It is … important to identify what they need to learn and to help them in the ways appropriate to them. We concentrate on helping the student make progress and get the services they need rather than worrying about their diagnosis. We don’t get hung up on what the label is. It’s the goals that are important to us.”

Well-regarded by the Department of Education, Gretchen Everhart has been recognized as a Gold Level School. It serves about 200 students from Leon County and its six surrounding counties. The students have severe medical, intellectual and behavioral challenges, and their ages range from four to 22 years old. Their IQs are 50 and below.

“It’s a wonderful school,” says Dr. Alan Cox, Divisional Director, Elementary Education & ESE for Leon County Schools. “They have registered nurses, speech pathologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, all there.”

No classroom is the same. Each one is designed for the students they serve. Some classrooms provide vestibular stimulation and are furnished with trampolines, swings and ball pits; some are arranged for students in wheelchairs. In one room, high school students, some in wheelchairs, participated in a dance and music class.

Occupational therapists and speech therapists put together sensory experiences to coordinate with the theme of current lessons. For a lesson on “The Past and Present,” items like seeds and dirt were placed in trays for students to interact with and feel.

Shannon green

An aspect of Gretchen Everhart that students greatly enjoy is The Sensory Room, which delights with light-up floors, colorful shapes and music. From shaping clay to singing in music class to learning about Dr. Seuss, students’ senses are actively engaged as a means to integrate learning in a way that's appealing. 

The Sensory Room provides sensory input with fiber optics. Parts of the floor light up as a person walks across it. Other parts provide a beautiful dance of light and shapes across the walls.

“This helps kids get the sensory experience they are sometimes craving,” Bullen explains. “It helps them find their body in space, has a calming aspect, gives them something to concentrate on. It helps them integrate their world and their place in it and teaches them to be aware of their bodies and how they move through space (like navigating through a room full of chairs). Sensory input is so valuable for children on the (autism) spectrum, as well as for individuals with cognitive deficits,” Bullen says.

Students with less severe challenges than those who attend Gretchen Everhart are educated within Leon County’s regular schools. The Leon County School System places children in different “tiers” based on a progress monitoring system. Cox explains that all students get core instruction in subjects such as English Language Arts and Math. Regular classes are Tier One.

“Children who don’t react like everyone else and who require some specific interventions move to Tier Two, where they are still in regular education classes, but they may have a small group and do some special things with them,” he says.

According to Cox, after going through Tier Two, both behaviorally and academically, progress-monitoring instruments determine if a child needs to go to Tier Three, which is more intensive. 

Shannon Green

“We concentrate on helping the student make progress and get the services they need rather than worrying about their diagnosis.” 
—Principal Jane Floyd Bullen

If a student meets a set list of criteria established by state rules, there is an eligibility hearing or a parent can request an evaluation. The child is given a full psychological screening and a long battery of other screenings to determine if he or she is eligible for exceptional student education. The school then develops an Individual Education Plan (IEP) that caters to the student’s individual needs. 

“That all guides us into what we call ‘placement’ — whether someone can be educated at the regular schools in a regular class, in a self-contained class or at Gretchen Everhart,” Cox says.

Leon County School Superintendent Rocky Hanna says, “We try to mainstream these kids as much as possible to keep them in their home-area schools. We’re trying to prepare children for life after school — trying to prepare them for when they leave our school system, for what life is going to be like in the workplace or college or whatever is next. Many autistic children are off the charts — intellectually brilliant — but they have to learn how to assimilate and survive in the mainstream world.”

Outside help is also available to these children. “If a child at Roberts or Hawks Rise needs PT or OT, we must provide it by law, and we do,” says Cox. The reason for this is that both Roberts and Hawks Rise Elementary Schools have satellite classes for autistic children.

Cox continues, “Two years ago, a law passed that lets private providers like Care, Engage and PlayBig come into the classroom and work with the child. We allow them to come in.”

However, the schools are resistive to students leaving during the school day, saying that the schools are responsible for the child’s IEP and test performance. The child being in school also affects full-time enrollment numbers, which determine federal funding for children with disabilities, according to Cox.

The therapists and teachers, both at private providers like PlayBig and within Gretchen Everhart and the other Leon County Schools, are very personally involved in the treatment of each child.

“Intensity of therapy is very high and very demanding. They sweat when they’re working with these kids, and they are very committed,” Hutto says of her staff. “They see all the little, mini victories all day long, and that’s what keeps our staff happy.”

Hanna says, “The people over at Everhart are saints. We are so blessed to have a school like Gretchen Everhart in our school system and our community.”

Bullen says of her staff, “They’re here for all the right reasons. Everyone understands the challenges the parents have. When our kids get sick, it’s hard. Sometimes the kids pass away because of their medical issues, and it’s hard … but it’s still very, very rewarding work.”

Rewarding, indeed, knowing that each little victory, each success, brings a truly exceptional student that much closer to a full and more gratifying life.   

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