Like the experiment with the eggs, Gayle and MESD Educational Assistant Leslie Miller Perry try to apply just the right amount of pressure on the four young men in their charge. The idea is to impose enough structure, accountability and inspiration to create success in the classroom.
The four youth in the classroom today are from the Estacada area. Their local school district contracts with MESD to provide instruction in this small, intimate setting.
Gayle has the students set their own daily goals. On this day, here’s what is written on the blackboard: finish all work, be independent, stay awake.
Each has a story
In Gayle and Leslie’s class, the students’ ages range from 13 to 18. Each has a story, a history and different set of challenges. Jesse has piercing eyes, dark hair swept down over his forehead and a rascally smile. I ask him why he’shere at Wynne Watts. He’s told he has emotional problems. But it’s clear that he doubts the veracity of that conclusion. “I get along with everyone except my family. I do have some anger management issues.”
Jesse is smart, articulate and he exudes a healthy measure of youthful intensity. He is close to graduating and Gayle is helping him tie up the loose ends of his credit requirements. More than that, she is also helping him plan his post-graduation life – getting a job, figuring out his finances, creating his a positive life path.
“Jesse is very highly motivated. Very focused. He wants to get his diploma and wants to get a job,” said Gayle. “He wants to start earning some money. Once he decides what he wants to do, he can decide what kind of further schooling he will need.”
Working with a non-reader
One 14-year old is struggling with basic reading and is far behind grade level. Even more concerning is that he has trouble retaining information from one day to the next, says Gayle. “I hate to say it,” says Gayle, “but it’s almost like Swiss cheese. One day he gets math problems done. The next day he comes in, and it’s like he’s never seen them before.”
He’s a puzzle, an enigma. But Gayle and Leslie continue trying to find the key that will unlock whatever is blocking his receptors. Their years of experience with tough kids gives them many tools to use.
Leslie has taught at Wynne Watts for ten years and Gayle for nine. They both began as Albertina Kerr employees and now work for MESD. In recent years, they have seen a lot of changes on the campus. Not long ago, they recall, there were five different programs including a 90-day residential shelter. “They were only supposed to be there for 90 days but some of the kids would come here for a year because they couldn’t find a placement for them. “ There were also residential programs for young children and an intensive treatment program for older youth. The educational component has been run at various times by Reynolds School District as well as Kerr. According to Gayle and Leslie, since taking over a few years ago MESD has done an outstanding job of strengthening the curriculum and instruction.
Every day a challenge; every child is different
Like many MESD programs that serve children with special needs, the Wynne Watts approach is highly individualized. Leslie and Gayle focus on core skills like reading, spelling and math but work differently with each student. Consistency and patience, they say, is the key to making progress. Many students exhibit impulsivity that requires distractions kept to a minimum. One student, Gayle said, is so impulsive, especially in the afternoon, that any little thing can distract him. Recently they arranged for another staff member to take him out to a quiet room and work with him one on one. “This has worked great for him. At first, he didn’t want to go, but now he really likes it,” she said.
Despite their best intentions, there are times when students can be incorrigible. “Their purpose is to disrupt and cause drama. They are not here to learn,” said Gayle. In those cases, Supervisor Patrick MacArthur helps get things back under control.
With students gone for the day, Leslie and Gayle have a rare moment of calm when they can reflect upon their work and the changes they’ve seen over time.
“Every year it’s changed. Residential units have shut down one by one. The services are going away, but the kids aren’t going away. The kids are still there,” Gayle said.
Despite their frustrations, the pair find huge satisfaction in their profession. “I really love my work,” said Leslie. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t enjoy it. The kids are such a challenge but they are so interesting to get to know. They are all great individuals.”
For Gayle, it’s also about reaching out and making a difference every day. She is at Wynne Watts “to give these kids a chance…just given the chance, these kids can do so much.” It’s also important to work with a smile. They know that a bit of laughter can help build strong relationships. “It’s very important here to laugh a lot with kids. They come in and almost the first thing we are doing with them is laughing about something and being able to joke with them. It’s so important because they can see this is a fun place,” Gayle said.