Mortensen Elementary School teachers Dottie Jennings and Sarah Handy consider themselves, among other things, instructors in a foreign language.
But they don’t teach French, German or Spanish.
They provide instruction to children in the school’s autism spectrum disorder program, one of three in Jeffco Public Schools and one of only eight in Colorado.
For students in the autism spectrum, speaking vocally — particularly when it comes to expressing their needs — can sometimes be an obstacle that hinders their ability to interact with the world.
“They use behavior to communicate,” Jennings said. “For someone on the autism spectrum, quite often it’s almost like oral language can be a second language. And we’re trying to begin inviting them to use that second language and not just use behavior as a way of communicating.”
The program, which provides individual instruction but also integrates autism spectrum students in classes with their grade-level peers, recently received a grant from the Colorado Department of Education. Though the grant provides a nominal sum of $1,000 to pay for classroom materials, an autism-education specialist will be working with the school over the next four years to refine the program and incorporate some of the education department’s standards. The specialist’s weekly visits to Mortensen are designed to help polish the curriculum so that it may serve as a pilot program for other schools.
“The primary reason that they chose Mortensen was because we had a building-wide staff that really had a sense of inclusion as the best option, whenever possible,” Jennings said. “When you’re working with kids that primarily communicate with behaviors, it really is helpful to have outside eyes,” she added about the greater benefit of working with a specialist.
Providing a fresh perspective in helping staff members teach may be only part of the ongoing evaluation — other intricacies of the program, such as scheduling, add a layer of complexity to the teachers’ days for which there could well be a remedy.
“Scheduling is a nightmare every year,” Handy said.
Most of the 17 students in the program spend at least part of their days integrated in classrooms with other students. When necessary, they are aided by a para-educator, who ideally works with two students at a given time. Keeping track of each student’s schedule and working to fit them all together can be a time-consuming and frustrating process.
“We try and offer a two-to-one shadow, if they need it. But some of those students are not supported through their whole day,” Jennings said of students teamed with para-staff. “They’re actually in their classroom with shadowing, when they need it.”
Students are teamed with staff only when necessary, Jennings said, as reliance on the nearby adults can potentially instill a feeling of dependence that runs contrary to the program’s objectives.
“It just nice to see as a team how much we really both have that desire to get these kids to where they are enjoying life,” she said.
Both Jennings and Handy began working with autism-spectrum students in the children’s homes. The differences between the two teaching applications are vast, they said.
“We’ve worked in the homes before, but the public sector is so different,” Handy said. “It’s a struggle to take what we know and what we’ve learned and apply it in a public environment.”
Both teachers professed an affinity for understanding how each individual learns, which can vary substantially among the students. And Jennings, who worked previously as a high school English teacher, opted to tailor her career path after learning that her son, Jonathan, was on the autism spectrum.
“With my son’s diagnosis, I really shifted in what I was doing, education-wise,” she said. “For me, it’s that connection with supporting the children and supporting the families. … It’s a scary road sometimes. And I really want to be a person on that journey saying, ‘It’s OK. We can do this.’ ”