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Helping students with special needs succeed in academics and in life

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For some children, success can’t be measured by grades on a report card or the final score of a

football game.

And that’s where the specialists with the Paul Bunyan Education Cooperative step in, to meet children with special needs where they are and help them to become as independent as they can be by the time they reach adulthood.

“We have found many times if we catch a child early, we can minimize their disability,” explained Keith Olson, an occupational therapist with the Paul Bunyan Co-op.

Some people may not realize that students receive free health care services at school and, in some cases, at home.

School districts are under state and federal mandates requiring them to provide all children ages birth to 21 years access to education. The districts must modify and adapt the school environment for children with special needs and provide resources for them.

The Paul Bunyan Co-op, based in Brainerd, serves students in 10 area school districts and charter schools, including: Brainerd, Aitkin, Crosby-Ironton, Pequot Lakes, Pine River-Backus, Pillager, Crosslake Community School, Emily Charter School, Pillager Area Charter School and Discovery Woods Montessori School.

The cooperative allows each district to share the services of specialists such as school psychologists, coordinators, physical, occupational and speech therapists; vision and audiology specialists; early childhood teachers and those who specialize in autism.

The number of students with special needs continues to grow. In 2000 the Paul Bunyan Co-op served 13.5 percent of the school population of its nine districts. In 2011 that number grew to 16.5 percent.

While many special needs students continue to see occupational or physical therapists in a private practice, the Paul Bunyan Co-op uses a team approach that brings therapists together with the student’s parents and teachers to make sure the child is well supported to learn.

Children as young as newborns are referred to the Co-op to receive services. Any developmental delays in an infant’s sensory and motor skills can impact all areas of learning for that child. The Co-op provides therapists for home visits to work with the child, at home or at daycare, to help the child’s caregivers with strategies and support that can be given during the child’s daily routines.

Seth Schardin was an infant when physical therapist Barb McColgan began working with him. He was born with congenital disorder of glycosylation type 1a, a metabolic disorder. Schardin is now a fifth-grader at Forestview Middle School in Baxter. He got an electric wheelchair last year which has allowed him to achieve a new level of independence. He uses an iPad app to communicate with others by touching a picture of the word he wants to say. McColgan also works on strengthening Schardin’s leg muscles with the use of a walker.

“His personality has just blossomed,” McColgan said of a smiling Schardin. “He’s just a charmer.”

Louise Flickinger, a teacher/consultant for students with visual impairments, has about 25-27 students with visual impairments that she works with within the nine school districts. As with many other therapists in the Co-op, a major aspect of her job is to problem solve, finding a solution to help them be successful in their environment. This includes training teachers and other school staff on the best ways to help the child.

A student may need Braille services or an opportunity to walk with a cane throughout a new school to learn the way to the classrooms before the hallways are crowded with students. It could mean helping them know where to walk before they accept an award on stage in front of their peers.

“Our goal is to get them as independent as they can be,” said Flickinger. “Sometimes it’s a small involvement.”

Children are referred to the Co-op by their teachers, medical professionals and parents themselves.

Olson said often a disruptive student who can’t sit still may have an underlying problem, like a sensory or processing disorder. Occupational therapists like Olson will observe the child and come up with recommendations.

“It may look like the child is naughty but it could be he has difficulty having people in close proximity,” explained Olson. “He’ll act out but really it’s because he feels closed in.”

A child with a sensory disorder might have a problem with the feel of carpeting on his legs during storytime, for example. Or a disruptive child who spends a great deal of time in the principal’s office may be unconsciously trying to be sent there because the crowded or noisy classroom is too difficult for him and he needs a sensory break. The occupational therapist will work to uncover what the problem is and perhaps change the child’s schedule or provide the student with sound-deadening ear phones.

“It’s very much like being a detective,” said Olson.

Specialists with the Co-op help provide talkers and iPads to students who are nonverbal, allowing them to communicate in their environment. E-books and e-readers allow students with learning disabilities to listen to their books being read to them. By using iPads, students with low vision can magnify the words on the screen. Physical therapist Cathy Dens said it is rewarding to watch students who are nonverbal still have a role to play in a classroom through the use of technology.

The Co-op has two autism specialists. Students with autism need to be able to predict what will happen next or their anxiety goes up. Specialists work with teachers, staff and parents to help students with autism be successful. Garfield Elementary School has a new autism program, which started this fall.

Many of the specialists working in the Co-op have worked there for many years.

“You want to help so they can do it themselves,” explained McColgan. “To have them not need us is just wonderful.”

■ JODIE TWEED, a former Brainerd Dispatch reporter, is a freelance writer living in Pequot Lakes. She and her husband, Nels Norquist, have three daughters.