The back of the school bus opens with a flourish and the wheelchair lift rumbles into action, delivering Sam Barbour to Meadow Hill Middle School.
As the 14-year-old rolls into place atop the platform, his face lights up with a huge smile and his twisted body sits straighter when he sees one of his paraeducators, Patti Folk, waiting to welcome him to school.
It’s a joyful moment in the early morning, before the start of school, one that plays out each day as members of Meadow Hill’s special education team wait for the 12 students in the school’s Life Skills program to arrive.
Cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, hearing impairment, developmental delay, learning delay and cognitive-behavioral disorders are just some of the challenges these students face – and several live with a multitude of disabilities.
“I think we have amazing and remarkable students in this district,” said Ginny Haines, special education coordinator for Missoula County Public Schools. “We have kids who work so hard every day, who have challenges a lot of us can’t even imagine.
“They overcome those on a daily basis, and they have teachers and staff who work hard every day to help them fulfill their potential.”
By 8:30 a.m., the dozen students have found their seats in Llisa Partaker’s classroom.
Across the school district, another 138 students are settling into the rhythm of Life Skills and extended resource classes in other schools.
In total, MCPS has about 1,000 students who are eligible for special education services, Haines explained.
In Life Skills, the goal is to teach students not only reading, writing and arithmetic, but also to build students’ self esteem and social skills, and to make them as self-sufficient as possible, Partaker said.
“One of the biggest fallacies from the past is that these students are different and are to be shuttered away,” Partaker said. “But each of these students have skills and knowledge to develop.
“Having them in ‘regular’ school is important for their own development, but it also benefits mainstream kids by showing them that not everybody is the same.”
To achieve the work, assistance is necessary, and this year Partaker is grateful to have five paraeducators – two more than in the past – to help with her students.
“The kids in here tend to need small groups, tend to need one-on-one and direct instruction, tend to need more attention, and tend to need just more of everything,” Partaker said.
On paper, the staffing for Partaker’s class may look excessive. In reality, the longtime special education teacher could use a few more paraeducators for her 12 students.
Because the students all function at different levels, keeping them on task and engaged with the day’s schoolwork is a complicated dance the adults keep in motion without break.
Two paraeducators are needed to work with Michael Laird, an 11-year-old who has autism and a host of other conditions.
Nonverbal and with the tendency to slap himself and bang his head, the youngster sometimes wears a hockey helmet to prevent injuries, and is currently wearing a padded helmet to prepare him for an upcoming eye surgery, which will result in dealing with bandages around his head.
While Partaker teaches Jason Armstrong and Connor Combo how to count change and make purchases, paraeducators Brian McGrath and Kelly Munson take Laird to the gym to work on motor control.
Meanwhile, Bina Gandhi works in rotating one-on-one sessions with Logan Charles and Benjamin Murphy, both of whom have Down syndrome, and Wade Butler who has a variety of challenges.
Meanwhile, Folk helps Kaylor Feeley practice counting and coin value, while Jodi Todd helps a few of the students get to their mainstream classes.
All of the students work at their own pace – some slowly making progress, a few stopping work on occasion.
On a recent morning, for instance, Wade didn’t want to study, so turned his head away from his teacher and laid down on his desk.
While Gandhi coaxed him back on task with her gentle requests, “Let’s learn something. I’m waiting. Please sit up,” she kept a close eye on Benjamin’s progress, as he counted with blocks at a nearby desk, and on Logan, who was cheerfully engaged with counting money.
“We have a lot of high-needs kids in here, but we have good energy going,” Partaker said. “It’s almost a ballet the way the paras know what to do and when to step in.”
“Day to day,” she said, “we have 12 different math lessons and 12 different reading lessons going. Everything is individualized – it has to be.”
In and around the many golden moments of learning – where students really grasp the day’s lessons – are also the many moments that test the teacher’s and paraeducators’ patience and compassion.
There are tantrums, involved visits to the bathroom, difficulty following directions and unacceptable behavior.
For paraeducators, who earn on average between $10 and $12 an hour, the intensive work is a labor of love.
“You do this job because of the kids,” said Folk. “I love helping them, and it is such an amazing feeling when you make a difference and if you have done a good job, even if it’s with just one student.”
For Gandhi, the work is a constant, welcomed challenge in trying to understand how the students will respond to new information and experiences.
She believes the Life Skills students are smarter and more responsive than most people think.
“You have to give them the time to think and to practice,” she said.
As required by federal law, children who have special needs and live with disabilities are entitled to a public education.
For that education to be meaningful and effective, it is critical for school districts to support and staff paraeducators, said Sue Furey, a longtime Missoula special education teacher.
“These people are definitely needed,” she said. “They don’t make very much money, and yet their hours and positions are always being threatened with cuts.”
In 2010, for example, the Missoula school budget needed to be trimmed. The end result was a reduction in the number of hours a paraeducator could work.
“That was a real blow, and those hours have never come back,” Furey said.
Now, because the district doesn’t yet know how the state Legislature will fund public education, and knowing that the budget for next year will be squeezed by pay raises and other demands, Furey is concerned budget cuts will again come to special education.
Funding shortages and budget cuts to special education are always a concern, Haines said.
“It really ties back into the funding that starts at the federal level and comes to the state,” she said. “How the Legislature is going to fund public schools is always something we are juggling, and with sequestration going into effect, there’s a potential our federal grant funding for special education will be cut by 5.5 percent.
“Wondering if that is going to happen makes us nervous,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean we would lose staff, but we don’t know how it will play out.”
Meadow Hill principal Christina Stevens hears the funding and staffing concerns regarding special education.
While she believes the district should hire more paraeducators in general, she knows firsthand that administrators are listening and responding to immediate needs.
“My staff was frustrated at the beginning of the year and were going home in tears because they were overwhelmed and understaffed,” Stevens said. “When I went to Dr. (Alex) Apostle and Mark Thane and Ginny Haines and expressed our concerns and invited them for a tour they were very responsive.
“They saw the need and found the money for us to hire two paraeducators,” she said. “I feel that they truly understand that staffing is critical and the kids are No. 1.”
Brent Charles has nothing but praise for how MCPS special education teachers have worked with his son, Logan who has Down syndrome.
“Honestly, I’ve been thrilled – even when Logan was in elementary school,” he said.
“The schools don’t just generalize every kid, and they really cater to the different needs of every kid. I know he is learning a lot and that he really loves school.
“My biggest gauge is when he comes home from school and talks about his teacher and shows me what he has learned and is excited to go back to school the next day. That’s my measuring stick.”
Not only have Logan’s reading, writing and math skills improved, but so too has his dedication to learning.
On a recent night, “he came home and pulled out his homework and did it all by himself,” Charles said. “He wrote down words and copied words – and three years ago, he would not have been able to do that.
“To me, his teachers are giving him something. He’s not going to school to learn to cook or clean or do a skill like that, they are concentrating a lot on his schoolwork, like any kid.”
Adriana Laird has found special education programs vary from school to school, and that some are definitely better than others.
She is relieved that her son Michael is enrolled at Meadow Hill, where she feels he is thriving.
“His teachers seem to have an opinion that Michael is capable of participating in his own world and that there are skills Michael is able to develop,” Laird said.
That hope has fostered more hope within the Laird family and it has improved Michael’s behavior.
“You have to be compassionate and understanding with a boy like Michael, who has extreme needs,” Laird said. “And they are at Meadow Hill.”
Because of the Meadow Hill Life Skills team, Michael no longer exhibits anger or fear behavior when he goes to school.
Instead, he walks right up to his teachers and willingly goes to class without any dramatic behavior like throwing himself on the ground.
“This has definitely been refreshing for us as a family and for Michael,” Laird said. “And his skills have really improved. It’s a huge relief.”