Detective work is essential at the Complex Needs Classroom at Fir Grove Elementary School. Sometimes a student’s only reaction is a slight brow crease, or the merest whisper of a smile.
Pamela Schneider’s two years of teaching in the classroom operated by the Douglas Education Service District have sharpened her powers of investigation. Also her enterprising spirit.
Schneider’s students all have medical complications that are too restrictive for most general education classrooms. But she’s determined to give each of them every opportunity for stimulation. Outings include trips to River Forks Park, TenDown Bowling, Wildlife Safari, the Umpqua Valley Arts Center, Roseburg Cinema 7 and the YMCA of Douglas County swimming pool.
For students with the most severe disabilities, experimenting with sensory stimulation is not only therapeutic. It also allows them to demonstrate preferences. Does a child like a bit of peppermint flavor on the end of the tongue, or is wintergreen better? Does the scent of lavender bring more of a smile than rose? Is warm water on the feet more pleasing than a nubby sensation?
“We try to get something out of each child, a reaction, that tells us we have brought that child some pleasure,” Schneider said.
Schneider’s efforts were honored on May 23 at the Roseburg Country Club, where she was one of 26 Douglas County educators feted at the Golden Apple Awards ceremony. The awards are sponsored by Century 21 The Neil Company Real Estate in Roseburg and recognize educators who put in extra effort to improve the lives of their students.
Bryan Hinson, incoming special education director for Douglas ESD, said Schneider has gone above and beyond to ensure that her students experience and get as much out of life as they can.
“Pam always tries to look at her students to see what can be, not what has been or should be,” Hinson said. “She has incorporated programs that allow her students to spend time with a broader array of children and is getting her students out in the community on a regular basis.”
Planning is the key to integrating Complex Needs Classroom students into other environments. In a given school year, the students can range in age from 5 to 21. Five to seven students attended CNC this year. Most are visually impaired; all use wheelchairs. As a result, they travel with lots of equipment.
From October through May, CNC staff and students make weekly treks to the YMCA, accompanied by a lifting device, a wheelchair adapted to water and modified life jackets that help keep heads and faces out of the water. Schneider secured the life jackets from a special equipment fund operated by Douglas ESD, which also supplied a vibrating mat for use in the CNC.
Pool trips are labor-intensive, but Schneider said they are important for several reasons. Besides providing experiences outside the classroom, the activity enables students to receive occupational and physical therapies they might not get on land. Schneider can cite another benefit as well.
“For so much of their day, somebody is touching them – helping them in and out of their chairs, fitting them with splints or braces,” she said. “In the pool, they can just float, and experience not being touched. It’s peaceful for them.”
Back at Fir Grove, Schneider and her instructional aides also work to integrate CNC students in the school population as much as possible. They schedule time with Developmental Learning Center students (those with developmental disabilities) for music, art, reading and field trips. They furnish plants to other Fir Grove classrooms so CNC students can help tend plants in visits all over campus.
The sole high school-aged CNC student attends a Roseburg High science class each week, and also enjoys sitting in on a guitar class and the RHS jazz band.
Community links with the program can be beneficial in other ways. Schneider said she’s everlastingly grateful to Northwest Credit Union for a $900 grant that enabled her to buy swings of various styles and sizes. Roseburg Public Schools staff affixed a sturdy attachment to the classroom ceiling. Now students of all ages who love to swing don’t have to wait for trips to the park.
Saving steps can be a blessing in the CNC, where helping students with most daily tasks takes two people working shoulder-to-shoulder. Schneider credits her staff with keeping everyone organized and as cheerful as possible. Joining her each school day are instructional aides Cleo Ghulke, Sheri Eastridge and Sheila Clifton, who is also a licensed practical nurse.
On Wednesdays, when Roseburg schools are on an early-release schedule, the CNC team scrubs down and disinfects all classroom surfaces.
It’s a difficult and demanding job. Yet Schneider, who has been a teacher for 32 years and in special education for 17 years, said it’s also been the most rewarding.
So much of what she does with her team, she says, is simply about making life nice for kids who aren’t able to say what they want or need.
“It’s a trial-and-error approach to making them happy, and sometimes we can’t,” Schneider said. “But every time one of them laughs or is happy, then I’m good.”