Kathy’s classroom bursts with activity and vibrant colors. She gives much credit to educational assistants Julie Funrue and Vickie Schulmerich, Speech Pathologist Daniela DeYoung and volunteer Eboni Weber.
Ten-year old Alexis Sanchez, a lively fourth grader at Deep Creek, is one of Kathy’s helpers who was once an ECSE student. Thriving now in Paul Chambers’ class and a member of Deep Creek’s “Wildlife Stewards,” Alexis gives little hint of the autism that she was diagnosed with at age two. Her development is due to the work of Kathy and the staff of MESD’s program, said her mother, Rachelle. “When Alexis first started with the program she was completely non-verbal. By the time she transitioned to kindergarten, she was talking and her social skills had really come along,” Rachelle
Rachelle’s journey reflects those of many families
Rachelle’s family experienced many of the same challenges and frustrations endured by other parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Before receiving help from MECP, even simple family activities, such as going to the store, eating at restaurants or being in any public place were out of the question. “Alexis would have complete meltdowns. Once my sister took her to the mall and people thought she was being kidnapped. During those early years we stopped going out at all,” she said.
Because Alexis’ older brother developed verbal skills around age one, Rachelle knew what normal growth looked like. As Alexis’ communication delays and social difficulties continued, Rachelle went to her pediatrician for advice. She was told to wait and give Alexis more time. A mother’s instincts told her that wasn’t the answer. As time went by, and Alexis still didn’t talk, she knew that she needed to do something else.
She heard about a program at Oregon Health and Sciences University, but the cost was going to be in the thousands of dollars. Then, on the recommendation of a friend, she contacted MESD’s early childhood team. At age two and a half, the MESD’s evaluation specialists determined that Alexis had ASD. “I was not sad,” she said. “I was actually relieved. Now, I thought, we can learn how to help her.”
Hannen program created a breakthrough
Rachelle enrolled Alexis in MECP at Hall Elementary in Gresham. Rachelle said the biggest breakthrough came when staff used the Hannen program, “More Than Words,” with Alexis. According to the Hannen website, “the program is family focused and gives parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and related social communication difficulties, practical tools to help their children communicate.”
As the staff began to work with Alexis, she gained verbal and social skills that allowed her to mainstream at Deep Creek without one-to-one assistance. Although she still receives special education support at the school, Alexis is the embodiment of a normal fourth grader. She’s on the volleyball team and participates in swimming and track. Although she knows that she’s a bit different from her peers, she has friends and functions well on a social level, Rachelle said.
All this brings us back to the circle and Kathy Shannon. When Kathy was reassigned to Deep Creek three years ago, she discovered that Alexis was there too. A joyful reunion of teacher, family and student occurred.
Kathy’s peer tutor program carries on a practice she has employed throughout her twenty-year career as a teacher. When she was a student teacher under MESD Teacher Mary Sechrist, Kathy learned the value of the peer tutor model Mary developed. But the impetus for the program goes even further back to Kathy’s childhood.
“When I was 10, my mother was asked to teach classroom and that’s why I became a teacher. I worked in my mom’s classroom in Michigan in a little country school.”
To recruit students for the peer tutor program Kathy makes a presentation to each fourth grade class. Each interested student fills out an application and goes for a formal interview. Once accepted into the program, students help in the MECP class- room with any tasks that need to be done.
After making a presentation about the program to Paul Chamber’s fourth grade class, Alexis volunteered to be a peer tutor. She went through the application process and interview and is now a “certified” member of this important cadre.
Kathy’s peer tutor program offers a unique opportunity for Alexis to practice social and communication skills. The same girl who couldn’t speak or even be in public is now helping others who occupy that same space. Rachelle sees her daughter’s participation in the program as a milestone that symbolizes how far she has come. “This is really full circle,” said Rachelle. “The peer program is a big confidence booster. It means she is a big girl now.”