Wednesday, April 14, 2004

A hope of learning fulfilled

This first-grade class a mixture of 'special' and regular - and all thrive

By Karen Vance
Enquirer contributor

Jodi Mehlman, a first grade teacher at Batavia Elementary School, engages students Tyler Wilson (from left), Amanda Carter, and Joshua Grimes during a reading lesson. More than one-fourth of her students are classified as having special needs.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/GARY LANDERS
During a bus ride home, Jodi Mehlman talks with students. Her presence on the bus helps keep discipline problems to a minimum, school officials said.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/GARY LANDERS
BATAVIA - "Ten, 20, 30, 40, 50 and 1, 2, 3," a chorus of first-graders chants as teacher Jodi Mehlman moves blocks onto a projector.

"That's 53," she says. "OK, if you got it right give me a yeehaw."

The 18 students in the Batavia Elementary class raise their arms to swing an imaginary lasso over their heads and shout, "Yeehaw!"

At first, it looks like a regular first-grade classroom - exuberant children and walls covered with brightly colored charts and posters with numbers, simple words, social studies lessons and science concepts.

But there's something different here. One student has her own personal dry erase board. Another occasionally gets up to walk in a circle on a nearby rug or to move an arrow on the blackboard to point to the class's current activity.

More than one-fourth of the students in this classroom have been designated "special needs" - students with disabilities like hyperactivity disorder, cognitive delays and even autism. And Mehlman is not a special education teacher.

"We're seeing remarkable gains for both the regular students in her class and the special-education students," said Assistant Principal Randy Willis. "To have students who were non-readers when they came into her class and become on the border of being independent readers, that's really remarkable, and a tribute to Jodi."

Inclusive classrooms aren't a new concept in districts all over the state, or even in the Batavia Local School District, said Willis, who was a special-education teacher before becoming a principal. But Mehlman began the year with the entire first-grade population of special-needs students.

"We feel we can meet the needs of special-education students in a regular classroom with a strong regular education teacher, like Jodi, and the assistance of a special-education teacher," Willis said.

This series spotlights a local classroom in which teachers are challenging students in bold, innovative ways. To nominate a class, e-mail, fax 768-8340 or write Bill Cieslewicz, The Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. Please include your name, daytime phone, e-mail and school.
Michelle Sandlin initially had concerns about her 7-year-old autistic son, Ben, being placed in a regular classroom.

"He's very obsessive about some things. We just weren't sure he would fit in and how the other kids would accept him," said Sandlin, 33, of Batavia Township.

But his performance in the class, where Mehlman uses lots of structure and routine - she even created a special flow chart to help him get started on assignments - has reassured her.

"It's actually worked out very well. I don't worry when he's there. I know nothing separates him from the other kids," Sandlin said.

Sandlin said Mehlman's efforts to individualize assignments and teaching methods have helped. She also credits Mehlman's constant communication so she and her husband can reinforce concepts and use similar routines at home.

While adjustments are made for the special-needs students, they still learn the same things as other first-graders.

"We don't change the curriculum at all for the special-needs children, but we modify the work and have special approaches to specific children," said Mehlman. "We teach all of the children early on that not everyone is the same, not everyone will be treated the same, but you'll be treated equally. You'll get things to accommodate your needs."

The range of needs of her students vary. Some require a nudge in the right direction, so she uses gentle reminders to "make the right decision."

But other students need specific help each day on reading. It's not unusual to see her huddled on the floor with a few children, both regular and special-needs students, to read and discuss each word and concept in a book.

With discipline, she knows some students can simply be asked to use their "first-grade manners," but others must be pulled aside and corrected.

In one case, Mehlman found a student made tremendous strides simply using recess as an incentive to keep him on track.

"He's really our miracle child. His mother thought he was autistic and she didn't want him in a regular classroom," said Mehlman. "Now, she sees him and it's overwhelming. He will work on his own, and he'll work to avoid losing his recess time."

And it's not just the special-needs children who are benefiting from that individual attention.

"(My son) has really soared. His reading, his math have really picked up," said Angela Kennedy, 32, of Batavia Township, whose son Jacob is a regular student in Mehlman's class. "His confidence has really picked up and he's become a self-starter."

And she thinks the unique class has prepared him to deal with people with differences in the future.

Before coming to Batavia in 1997, Mehlman taught for four years in the Cincinnati Public Schools.

While studying at the College of Mount St. Joseph, Mehlman never thought she'd be teaching a class like this.

"I thought I couldn't handle it. I would be going crazy," she remembers. "It's not what I expected to be doing. It's a blessing. It's fun.

"The reward is seeing the smiles on the kids' faces when they do something correct, seeing them proud of themselves," she said.

Willis said her willingness to be a team player, working with parents and special-education teacher Sharon Stoffel and aide Cecilia Isner, and her energy has made her successful.

"She has an inner drive. She sets a standard, and she wants to see all her students reach that," Willis said.

And even at the end of the day, Mehlman has the same energy as when she walked in the door. Before she goes home to her husband and her own 2- and 4-year-old girls, she takes on another challenge - riding one of the school's rowdiest school buses.

Carrie Riggenbach, the driver of the 64-student bus, said Mehlman has had a remarkable impact on the students' behavior.

As the bus heads up a hill in Batavia, the young voices volume begins to increase. Mehlman stands.

"Show me your 1-inch voices," she says, and the bus immediately quiets.


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