Karen earned a regular high school diploma from St. Mary’s Academy in Portland, Oregon in 1997. Having completed all of the Oregon State requirements for a regular high school diploma. She then completed requirements for an AS degree and a certificate to be a teacher’s aide at Portland Community College in March 2001.
What’s so unusual about that?
Karen also happens to have Down syndrome. However, through the benefit of early intervention, Montessori preschool and kindergarten programs, tutoring, and a great deal of dedication on her part, Karen was able to participate fully in a regular classroom setting from her grade school years all through to her achievement of a regular two year Associates of Science Degree from Portland Community College.
Early intervention programs were a critical element and building block for Karen. She and her family began participating in these programs when she was about three months old. We were able to learn about how to work with Karen to help her reach various stages of development for gross motor and fine motor skills. We learned how important it was to interact with Karen, to read to her, talk with her, encourage and PRACTICE her development. And we learned a sense of urgency. The early years are so critical and every day counts!
The focus on literacy at an early age was a key building block for Karen. We stumbled on a book by Dr. Doman called something along the lines of “how to teach your baby to read”. The Doman family has taken this concept and program world wide and added all sorts of bells and whistles. We worked with the first version…very basic. I have heard of some of the extensive “add ons” that have been built in to the program over the years, but have no first hand experience with anything other than the original program that must be at least 50 some years old by now!
There are three excellent resources that are similar to what we used to help Karen learn to read. I recommend Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome by Patricia Oelwein. I also recommend resources on reading from www.downsed.org and from www.ereadingpro.com. All three of these resources are similar in approach and have various ready made tools that will save valuable time!
We thought we were teaching Karen to read….and we were…but more importantly, we were building her vocabulary….and building her ability to THINK….
At about the age of three, Karen was enrolled in a Montessori preschool program in her neighborhood. The teacher was extremely helpful in communicating the areas of focus in the classroom, and helping us with ideas we could use to continue working with Karen outside the classroom. By the time Karen entered the first grade, she was reading at the first grade level, doing basic addition, printing and phonetic spelling. The blend of phonetics from Montessori and the sight word reading Karen learned with the Dr. Doman program set her up to be one of the great all time spellers in the family!
First Grade – Fourth Grade
One On One Tutoring
During Karen’s first four grades she spent an hour, two times a week, with a tutor after school. The tutor worked with Karen on reading comprehension, math concepts and basic grammar principles. The tutor used various standardized tests for baseline diagnostics and then developed her program from the test results. The tutor would assign homework exercises and programs for us to use at home for additional practice and reinforcement. There was not a lot of “homework” with Karen’s regular schooling, so this fit in well.
As much as possible, we would attempt to get information from the classroom teachers on assignments and lesson plans to help Karen become more familiar with the material, “practice ahead of time,” or reinforce concepts. We always requested an additional set of books to use at home for this purpose. This enabled us to practice and reinforce lesson concepts on “no homework” nights. This also enabled us to work ahead on some concepts.
Why did we do this extra work?
We had come to realize that Karen’s attention span was much greater if she were involved in material that she already had exposure to from other sources. Unlike other students who may be bored by repetition, a review of the familiar helped Karen to “tune in.” By the time the material was reviewed in class, it had “meaning” and familiarity for Karen. She could relate to it!!! And because of that, she could participate!
Karen swam with her brother almost every day after school. The regular exercise routine helped her stay alert during the day and was also helping to improve her overall muscle tone. Karen also participated in a gymnastics class that helped her social development as much as it helped her muscle development. Karen learned to swim when she was nine months old, but we didn’t realize at the time how valuable that would be to her intellectual development as well as physical development!
Karen was in a public school during her first four years. Her second, third and fourth grade teachers were the most helpful and resourceful in finding ways to emphasize Karen’s strengths and to support her as a full member of the class. They willingly shared lesson plans, additional worksheets for practice and the class textbooks so that Karen could work ahead and review without having to drag home every book in her desk at night.
Fourth Grade – Eighth Grade
The Switch to Private Education
At the start of Karen’s fifth grade in a public school, we made the decision to enroll Karen in a Catholic parish school, St. Pius X, in Portland, Oregon. At the same time we determined that Karen would benefit from repeating the fourth grade. The fourth grade teacher at St. Pius X had received her training in Special Education and was very willing to work with Karen.
The decision to make the switch to private school centered around a few key factors. It became increasingly difficult for us to get the focus and cooperation we felt they needed to ensure a successful environment for Karen. Planning meetings would be scheduled, then rescheduled due to a staff members inability to be present, etc. When they did occur, it was difficult to get to the key issues with ten to twelve “team members” present, many of whom had not even reviewed Karen’s file.
The fifth grade teacher did not want to provide extra information to help Karen stay up with the class. In addition, the extra set of books to be used at home became a source of contention for some faculty members. We began to realize that the sense of urgency to ensure forward motion to Karen’s learning was not there. We realized that they were spending a great deal of time on administrative issues and not at the core focus for Karen’s education. A change was critical to enabling Karen to continue forward progress.
Funding a Teachers Aide for the Classroom
At St. Pius, we contributed the salary for a teacher’s aide to work in the classroom, assisting the classroom teacher and providing supplemental support to Karen and any other student who needed assistance. This proved to be a communication and prioritization of Karen’s education plan for the remaining grade school years.
The classroom teacher, the teacher’s aide, Karen and her family formed the team that enabled Karen’s success. We worked together to set the priorities for Karen, to communicate plans and changes, to measure success and celebrate progress!
The Binder System
The teacher’s aide put together a binder with a divider for each class (subject) to enable regular note taking and sharing from the classroom, to home and back to the classroom. She would take notes on the subject that enabled us to get an understanding of the material covered, information, homework (so they could determine how well Karen understood what was expected of her) and advice on what to work on if there was not a homework assignment. We would add notes each night at the end of the homework session. The binder would travel back and forth with Karen.
A set time was agreed upon for a weekly meeting with the aide, the teacher and us. The meeting usually lasted about 30 minutes. Although a weekly schedule was set up, in practice there were probably only three meetings held each month, given the school calendar.
The regular swimming routine was kept up for Karen. This had a double benefit. A record was kept and sent to the school for verification, so Karen was able to satisfy her PE requirements. This left PE time at school open for one on one time with either the teacher or the aide to help reinforce a concept or cover new material. The second benefit was that Karen actually got more exercise each day than she would have had taking a PE class.
The High School Years
Continued Weekly Tutoring
This practice continued along the same lines as previously described. These key strategies helped to keep Karen on track with her classmates. However, in order to keep up with her classmates, Karen regularly worked several more hours per week outside the classroom than many of the others. We used reward systems such as movies, trips to grandparents, and trips to the beach, to motivate working towards certain goals. Special food treats were not used as motivators or rewards.
High school choices were looming and so were the fears of returning to a less flexible public education system. Fortunately, Karen had been able to demonstrate good learning and studying skills and was able to take the high school entrance exam for St. Mary’s Academy.
Admissions staff at St. Mary’s were encouraged to come to St. Pius to observe Karen in the classroom in order to help them make a determination on acceptance. They complied with that request and determined, based on their visits, teacher recommendations, and Karen’s test scores, that they would admit Karen to the freshman class.
St. Mary’s Academy is the oldest school in the state of Oregon and it is the only all girl school in the state as well. Founded by the Sisters of the Holy Names, the school has a strong value system for teaching all girls who want to learn. However, they had not admitted a student with Karen’s diagnosis in the past. Karen was a first for them. There was some conflict on the faculty as many were concerned that the college prep environment would prove to be too difficult for Karen. At the start of Karen’s academic career, she had 100% support from about 50% of the faculty. It was up to her and our “system” to make this journey a successful one.
Teacher’s Aide and the Binder System
The system previously described was used, upgraded for the high school years. Depending on the class content, the teacher’s aide attended class with Karen either every day or on “as needed” basis.
The teacher’s aide scheduled a separate meeting with each teacher, Karen and her parents prior to the start of each school year. The course outline for the year was reviewed with special emphasis on the upcoming quarter. Karen’s preferred learning style was reviewed with the teacher, as was the role of the teacher’s aide. The need for advance notice of assignments was discussed and a method for communication of those plans was worked out. In addition to the initial planning meeting, the teacher, the aide and her parents met at the start of each quarter. The teacher’s aide managed the communication on a day to day basis in the interim, using the binder system daily. Karen, the teacher’s aide and her parents met on a weekly basis at the school at a predetermined time. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss priorities, upcoming projects, further information that may be needed from the teachers and study aides that
may be needed and how they would be done.
We worked together with the teacher to develop study aides and review sheets to use in helping reinforce key concepts for Karen. Often, the teachers had this on hand, but we also made good use of the “teachers guide” for textbooks used in the classroom. These guides included a wealth of information that helped with the learning process. And the teachers guides helped save time, as ready made study guides, practice tests, concept maps, etc. were there to use.
Extra Set of Books
Karen continued the practice of keeping an extra set of books at home during her high school years for much of the same reasons she did in her early years. In addition, for some classes, the teachers provided material from the teachers guide that usually accompanied certain textbooks. In a college prep environment, the teachers did not tend to use this supplementary material in class, however, it proved to be very helpful in clarifying concepts for Karen. This was especially true for her high school biology class. The additional exercises provided were very structured and helped to reinforce the material presented. Karen was able to lock in concepts through the repetition of true/false, fill in the blank, and multiple choice type questions found in supplementary material from the teachers guides.
Videos for Reinforcement
We realized early on that Karen was a very visual learner. We used this knowledge to our advantage as much as possible. The teachers, especially in History and English, were very helpful and resourceful in this regard. They recommended videos that were right on track with the subject matter and it made all the difference for Karen. Karen remembers vividly the Saturday and Sunday afternoons in front of the TV watching a video version of The Merchant of Venice with book in hand. She would watch a chapter, read a chapter, then watch again and discuss it with her mom, dad or brother. Karen’s aunt Shannon was an English major in college and often pulled “Shakespeare duty” with Karen. By the end of high school Karen loved Shakespeare, even Hamlet and MacBeth! But she will tell you her favorite Shakespeare plays are The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, and Much Ado About Nothing!
The Perfection Learning Corporation (800) 831-4190 is a valuable resource for literature, classics, Shakespeare, contemporary, and others. They have a service called “Retold Classics” in which works such as The Scarlet Letter is written in straightforward concise language. Supplementary quizzes and discussion exercises are available to help teach and reinforce concepts. Many of Karen’s required assignments for English literature were ordered the summer
before from Perfection Learning. She would read and discuss the content with family members, mostly her English major Aunt! Her brother Brian was a year behind Karen in school and had a similar reading list, so the conversations back and forth with Brian helped her as well.
These were the key strategies that were used repeatedly during Karen’s high school years to help her keep up in the academic environment at St. Mary’s Academy.