Janice Nugent has been working with children at Missoula County Public Schools for 41 years and was instrumental in proposing a district-run preschool.
Now, closing in on retirement in June, she speaks with pride about the accomplishment of creating a program that helps students transition into kindergarten more smoothly and is comprised of certified teachers with special education backgrounds.
“I think it’s a more seamless service for the children and more practical,” Nugent said.
Nugent has worked with different age groups over her time with the district, but said she likes the preschool age because it’s a time when speech therapists and others can make sizable inroads to help kids.
“I just think it’s so hopeful,” she said.
She remembers taking her younger brother, who has Down syndrome, to his speech therapy – and that firsthand knowledge of what therapy means to people with disabilities and their families inspired her to want to help them.
When Kirsten Hangas learned her son Jack is on the autism spectrum, it was like a tidal wave hit her.
Nugent was a steadying force throughout Jack’s preschool years and approached her job with patience, creativity and humor, Hangas said.
“And she really empowered us to do what we could at home and to really continue working toward his goals,” Hangas said.
“She helped us find our own voice in the process and helped us learn how to be powerful advocates for him until he could learn to advocate for himself,” Hangas said.
Jack is now a seventh-grader and he still sees Nugent, often through church.
“She still just holds such a special place in our hearts,” Hangas said.
The rewards of her work to evaluate and direct therapy with students is evident in tangible ways, Nugent said, using an example of a girl who spoke often during a recent field trip to the Vo-Ag Center.
“In the fall, she couldn’t do that and now she can,” Nugent said, adding that seeing kids succeed is rewarding.
Nugent said she’s surrounded by high-caliber professionals who continue to educate themselves and work to stay current on best practices.
Continuing her education has been important as the field has evolved from its beginnings to now, said Nugent, who earned her doctorate degree in special education in 2011.
“I wanted to prove that I could,” she said of writing her dissertation.
Just because she’s retiring doesn’t mean she will not be busy.
There’s a grandson and her brother, who lives with her over summers, and Nugent said she plans to continue to be involved in advocacy efforts for people with disabilities, as she did this legislative session with a bill to increase health insurance benefits for children with Down syndrome.
Man’s best friend – and his owner – are retiring from Missoula County Public Schools this year, too.
Scout, a yellow Lab, is the first speech therapy dog at MCPS, and owner Nancy Jo Connell said she hopes he won’t be the last.
“It was sort of uncharted terrain,” said Connell, who has been a speech therapist in the district for three decades.
Scout has helped students with a range of different skills, including pronunciation, potty training, practicing fire drills and overcoming stutters.
The unconditional listener makes kids feel safe and like they are helping him. Students read to him and hide treats and then direct him to find them and just enjoy his companionship.
“Just really helping to calm those kids down, bring them out,” Connell said.
Luca Khomenko struggles with stuttering and formed a bond with Scout, Luca’s mom Danesa Khomenko said.
“Scout was just such a great thing for him to have there, just because he’s so comfortable with animals to begin with,” Khomenko said.
Connell was dedicated to improving Luca’s communication skills and spent time researching what would help, and was creative and fluid when approaches didn’t work, Khomenko said.
“It was amazing just to have someone who we felt like really understood what we were going through,” she said.
Luca is now in first grade, but reconnects with Connell and Scout every time he sees them around town.
“She definitely left an impact with Luca,” Khomenko said.
Connell said she always knew she wanted a career that involved helping kids, but did not want to be a teacher. So she became a speech therapist and has spent the past 20 years working at Jefferson Preschool and Head Start.
“I love it as much as I did at the beginning,” she said.
The variety of settings and student needs keeps each day challenging and fulfilling.
“I just love the wonder and the fun and the magic and silliness,” she said of the 3- to 5-year-olds with whom she works.
“Sometimes the best part of my day is something that has nothing to do with speech,” she said, adding every day is full of laughter and hugs.
Before deciding to train and use Scout as a therapy dog, Connell already was used to being in unfamiliar terrain in her field.
In the mid-1990s, she helped propose a district-run preschool instead of the district paying for students to attend other preschools.
The change would help therapists work more closely with kids instead of dropping into the other programs throughout the course of their day, Connell said.
“It was a way to really have MCPS claim it,” she said.
After nearly 39 years, Melodee Smith-Burresson also will hang up her teaching hat this June.
“It’s just a flash,” Smith-Burresson said about her decades teaching at Target Range School.
“I began playing school when I was 3 years old,” she said, adding she would give lessons to stuffed animals and neighborhood kids.
Initially, she taught in Kalispell, but returned to her hometown and Target Range.
“I just fell in love with the community,” she said.
Many things, including best practices and administrators, have changed over time, but some things, like the community she loves and her priorities, haven’t.
“The constant is the kids. That’s your job. That part never changes,” she said.
Smith-Burresson still enjoys teaching and said she relishes the relationships she has formed with students, parents, colleagues and community members over her years teaching elementary and Title I classes.
“I’m going to miss the kids, oh my goodness,” she said.
“She is dedicated to her kids and her craft,” Principal Barb Droessler said.
“She treats every kid as though they were her own,” Droessler added.
Droessler knows Smith-Burresson as the mother to friends, as well as someone who helped her when she first started as a teacher at Target Range.
“She raises the bar for everybody else because she expects things to be done right and always does them right herself,” Droessler said.
Her caring goes beyond the school, said Jennifer Corbett, who was a student of Smith-Burresson and who now teaches kindergarten in a nearby classroom.
Corbett was painfully shy, but Smith-Burresson put her at ease and ultimately inspired her to become a teacher.
“She just made me feel so comfortable and I could take risks in her class and I wasn’t afraid to speak out or ask questions,” Corbett said.
Smith-Burresson is the first one to organize care packages or meals for colleagues who are going through a tough time or are celebrating something.
When Corbett’s husband was injured at work, a full meal, complete with fresh cookies, was ready for the next evening’s dinner, she said.
“That’s honestly what she does for everybody,” she said.
Smith-Burresson also is a wealth of education knowledge and has helped Corbett throughout her 17 years at Target Range, as she has helped many other teachers at the school.
“I think honestly, I would say that she keeps everybody really grounded,” Corbett said.
Passing down her knowledge is rewarding, Smith-Burresson said, adding she had someone help her when she first began.
“So it’s really nice to come full circle,” she said.