My 13-year-old son, Maruthi, is non-verbal. Born blind and with severe cognitive impairment, he cannot take himself to the bathroom or button his shirt. Last week, I spent time Gruening Middle School in Eagle River to watch Maruthi play volleyball. I was not sure how this would go but was pleased with what I saw happening on the court.
At 1:15 p.m., Kristen Brown, a life skills teacher at GMS, greeted the students as each converged on the gymnasium from various locations throughout the school. An eighth-grade girl with hot pink noise-cancelling headphones walked to the gym independently.
Devon W., seventh grade, steers his power chair, maybe a little too fast. Teacher’s aides follow behind and keep an eye on his progress.
My daughter, Gloria, also 13-years-old and blind, uses her white cane to travel. She is accompanied by a student helper, a blonde girl with long hair.
Inside the gym is a party atmosphere.
Lady Gaga’s song, “Poker Face” blares on the loudspeaker as 25 general education middle schoolers jog the indoor track. Maruthi laughs and starts to spin in circles when he hears the music. A tall boy takes him by the arm and escorts him down a lane.
Gloria joins Martha Bubna, a physical therapist at GMS. They march to the beat of the music until Gloria, her legs in braces, decides she needs a break.
After warm-ups, the volleyball games begin.
Josephine (Josi) Schultz, adapted physical education teacher, is responsible for Brown’s nine special-needs students.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, this is Schultz’s third year in Alaska and third year teaching for the Anchorage School District.
Schultz says her first priority is to “make sure my kids are included, make sure they’re being treated with respect.”
With Schultz’s help, Brown’s class has participated in Frisbee, football, bowling, snowshoeing, sledding, badminton, soccer, table tennis and many other sports.
“Whatever they (general education kids) do, I try to modify so they can do the exact same thing,” Schultz says.
Hannah Gorman, a GMS teacher’s aide, links arms with Maruthi to help him serve.
The other teens are patient when it takes a little longer for him to get the volleyball in the air. Later, one of the general education girls stops the ball as it zooms toward Maruthi and Gorman’s heads.
In Adapted PE, different kids have different goals.
Maruthi’s goals are to remain standing and to serve the ball when it is his turn. Another student’s goal is to catch the ball and throw it toward the opposing team.
Although students might have modifications, it is important to Schultz that her pupils not be “babied” with special treatment.
“He’s got to follow the rules too, guys,” she reminds the general education students when one of her nine breaks a rule.
At the end of class, as one of the participants in the adapted PE class hands Schultz a checklist. The categories include showing respect, following rules, having a good attitude. Schultz and the student discuss the goals met, then Schultz gives him the signed checklist. He places it in a metal lunchbox. The student is earning tickets that can be spent at Brown’s treasure box.
Back in the classroom, we gather to talk about adapted PE.
“It’s my favorite,” Leisel Mantyla, teacher’s aide, said. She points out there are benefits besides the exercise. The relationships the students make extend beyond the gym.
“They have friends out in the school,” Mantyla says.
Mike P., an eighth-grade student, tells me he likes cardio day. With a big smile and vigorous nodding, Ozric S., seventh grade, shows his agreement.
Seventh-grader Michael S. is less impressed.
“I don’t like cardio day. They make you run,” he says. His favorite game is long ball, a version of dodge ball.
Brown takes a planning period while her class is with Schultz. The break is just one of the many reasons Brown likes adaptive PE.
“It allows them to access their environment with typical peers,” she says.
“They all enjoy it. Miss Josi just has a lot of energy.”
“She only comes twice a week and she’s everybody’s favorite,” Mantyla says.
Editor’s Note: This spring, look for Schultz and other members of Brown’s class as they compete on the GMS track team. Melinda Munson and her family have lived in Chugiak for three years. Her fresh look at life here in Chugiak-Eagle River brings ECHO News readers a new look at life here. She is the mother of six children – four with special needs – and thus has earned a special place in my heart as I marvel at all she accomplishes.