At Pine Grove Middle School, students roam the halls and go from class to class. Be careful, though! They may want to consider putting a few “Wheelchair Crossing” signs up. Allea Christopher is one of Olivia Fletcher’s students in the Life Skills class. Don’t worry if you don’t know where you’re going. Allea is more than happy to let you follow her. She will show you where you need to go. That is, if you can keep up! Unlike other schools where special needs kids are set aside and taught a few simple tasks, Mrs. Fletcher was intent on bringing out her students’ full potential. They are regular kids to her, just with a few more challenges. According to Mrs. Fletcher, “Everyone is born with a purpose. Everyone is here for a reason.”
Handicapped to Handi-capable!
In the past, a special needs student was often considered “handicapped” because of their limitations. That’s not the case at Pine Grove Middle School. These unique individuals are known as “handi-capable” and they are more than willing to let you know exactly how capable they are. There is no division at Pine Grove Middle School. No stereotypes. And best of all, no one is treated differently. The “normal” kids welcome their peers, giving them high-fives in the hallway and interact with them as if there were no differences whatsoever. All of the kids are simply kids, having fun and actually enjoying the time they spend at school.
This year the students read the book Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, in which a young boy learns the true value of kindness. The words “Be Kind” can be found throughout the school. All of the kids have taken the message to heart, including those in Mrs. Fletcher’s Life Skills class. They are the first to say hello and the first to offer a smile. Their excitement about learning is contagious and so is their affection for their fellow classmates. After spending less than 30 minutes talking to the students and taking a tour of the school, it is very apparent the feeling is mutual. “Be kind” isn’t just a saying at PMG. It’s the glue that binds all of the students together.
Many of the kids in Mrs. Fletcher’s classes have unique needs. Some are non-verbal, while others like Allea motor around in their wheelchairs faster than most kids on two feet. For the kids at PMG, their unique limitations do not handicap them at all. Instead, they motivate them by offering unique challenges that each of these kids are striving to overcome, and they are succeeding. They are not only moving ahead with leaps and bounds, they are turning heads doing it. The phrase “give them an inch and they will take a mile” is an understatement. Mrs. Fletcher opened the door a crack and these amazing kids burst through it like gangbusters leaving any doubters in their wake.
From Isolation to Integration
Mrs. Fletcher’s goal was to get her kids into mainstream classrooms and allow them to push their limits as far as they possibly could. They chiseled their way into the hearts of every student and faculty member at PMG. No longer are they isolated to one room. They enjoy going to every class they can, including Art, Computer, Business, Ag, and Technology. They also take Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, and spend time in the sensory room. The sensory room allows them to explore their senses. Aromatherapy, colors, textures, and other tools are used to allow the students to experience a variety of things that help them to cope with stress and make them feel at ease.
Learning Life Skills
When the students enter the Life Skills classroom, they get the opportunity to learn many of the things that most kids take for granted. They are taught how to use a cell phone, cook, and even do laundry. One of the students’ tasks is to wash the jerseys for the school’s football team. They count how many pieces of clothing go into the washer and measure how much soap is needed. Once the uniforms are dry, they are folded, sorted by size, and returned to the coach. Their classroom has several different stations including a fully functional kitchen with a washer and dryer. All within easy reach so the students can perform as many of the tasks as possible on their own.
Over the past year, the community started getting involved. Mrs. Fletcher’s parents donated a coffee cart that allows the students to make and sell coffee to the faculty members. The supplies for the coffee cart are donated, with Mrs. Fletcher’s mother supplying the cookies and other goodies the students sell throughout the week. Mae Polly’s, Sweet Addictions, and other local businesses also contribute to the goodies the students offer for sale. Many of the teachers wait until they get to school to drink their coffee, eagerly looking for the Coffee Cart Crew to pass by their classroom. As part of the learning process, the students not only make the coffee, they take orders and must also make change when something is purchased. The money the students make goes into purchasing more supplies for both the coffee cart and the classroom.
In addition to the coffee cart, there are other ways the kids interact with the community. Once a month, they go to the YMCA for gymnastics and then to Jacob’s Ladder for horseback riding. When it comes to time to buy groceries for the kitchen, the students take turns going to the store to buy whatever is needed. The students also get to participate in Special Olympics and other activities, like the Miracle League baseball program. Each student is encouraged to participate in every activity to their fullest capacity. Many have exceeded everyone’s expectations—even their own.
Mrs. Fletcher and Her Staff
Over the past couple of years, Mrs. Fletcher’s classroom grew to the point there were enough students for two full classes. Mrs. Harris has taken on half of the students while Mrs. Fletcher has the rest. There are several paraprofessionals who also assist with the classes. There are times when other teachers will visit the classrooms and help as well. At PMG, everyone works together and the overall result is absolutely amazing! The kids smile and interact with one another as if there are no differences whatsoever. Friends are friends with no bias or discrimination.
Lynn Loftus, the sales manager at South Georgia Today, taught the Life Skills class as a substitute at PMG. Even though she hadn’t seen the students for several months, all of the kids saw her and began to smile. Hugs were everywhere! Ms. Loftus passed out “Kindness Revolution” bracelets from Travis Pate State Farm to all of the students she came in contact with. You could tell by her interaction with the kids the fondness and love she felt for them was returned several times over by the students. When asked why she enjoyed subbing at PMG so much, she quickly replied, “ I didn’t sub here because it was close to my home, I subbed here because it was close to my heart.”
Mrs. Fletcher decided she wanted to be a teacher for special needs kids when she was in 6th grade. Inspired by the Life Skills teacher, Ginny Sumner, she was given a glimpse of what could be done when students were given the right opportunities and resources. Ms. Sumner taught her how to create new tools that could be used as teaching aids and allowed her the opportunity to spread her wings and grow her passion. Ms. Sumner will never know the impact she made on Mrs. Fletcher but each of these students is a living tribute.
Eventually, Mrs. Fletcher went on to become a teacher and when she was offered the position for special needs, her answer was a resounding, “YES!!” She thought back on all the valuable lessons she learned from Ms. Sumner, grabbed her teaching supplies, and set foot in what is now the Life Skills classroom. Once she got the ball rolling, there was no stopping her. She gave it a small nudge and the kids took over from there. They haven’t looked back since.