By Melinda Munson

The special education department at Skagway School wears a lot of hats. This is embodied by a collection of paper hats in Special Education Director Cody Burnham’s office. A kindergartener who receives services decided he had enough alphabet headgear, so everyday he makes the trek to Burnham’s office to drop off the newest offering. Of particular note on the burgeoning shelf is the “U” is for underwear and “E” is for elephant paper cap.

Amy MacPherson, special education teacher, described a typical work day. 

“I always say I get to do a little bit of everything,” she said. “I work with elementary students all the way through high school and I help students depending on their individual needs. So, sometimes that looks like I get to support with science, other ones I’m teaching to read. Other ones, we’re doing physical therapy or occupational therapy to meet a physical need they might have. So, my day changes. Every 30 minutes or so, I have a new job ahead of me.”

Along with paperwork, and Burnham said there is a lot of paperwork, the two might help drive the bus route, something unheard of in a larger district.

Burnham and MacPherson currently have 22 students on their caseload. They are assisted by six special education paraprofessionals, three part-time and three full-time. Services for children can range from a self-contained classroom where a student spends a majority of their day working on individual goals, to a student that occasionally gets pulled out of their general education classroom for online sessions with a speech therapist.

This year, Burnham and MacPherson have stressed inclusion by educating staff and peers, and offering opportunities for those with special needs to be leaders. The educators’ efforts were recognized by the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education who named the entire special education department at Skagway School the team recipient of the Special Education Inclusive Practices Award for 2022.

“The award is based on having inclusive practices and making an effort to not only train staff in how to integrate students into their classroom but make sure that they can participate,” Burnham said.  “So, we did trainings on things like de-escalation this year, and how do we calm kids down? We’ve done a lot of things on kids who are overstimulated, and how can we make the environment more inclusive for them, so they can stay in the classroom.”

Some of the inclusion strategies encompassed teaching disability history to highschoolers, inviting a student who is blind to regularly read braille books to kindergarteners, incorporating students with special needs on Battle of the Book teams and teaching lessons to elementary and middle schoolers about disabilities, and allowing them to ask questions.

MacPherson stressed the importance of asking appropriate questions. 

“…if you haven’t worked around people who have varying disabilities, sometimes you don’t know how to respond. And it’s more that you’re afraid to respond the wrong way, so you don’t do anything at all. So, I’ve had students [with disabilities] going into … kindergarten, one, two and now third grade, to really incorporate students with varying disabilities. And having students know that it’s okay to ask questions, that they’re not going to get in trouble for trying to understand why somebody is different. But that different is okay…”

Burnham described himself as “the resource” at the school for parents who have concerns about their child’s development or academic journey.

The school hosts Child Find each year, which screens children, generally ages 3-5 for speech, pre-academic skills, gross and fine motor skills, vision, hearing and social emotional development. If a caregiver suspects a developmental issue at any age, Burnham can help direct guardians.

Burnhams said he doesn’t ever want families to feel discouraged from seeking help.

“When I first talk to parents, there are usually a lot of misconceptions about what we do – that if their kid receives support from us that they’re going to be labeled for the rest of their lives, that other kids are going to pick on them, that there’s always going to be kind of this spotlight on them in the classroom, which is one of the reasons why it’s so important that we use inclusion as our model because then there’s not a spotlight on them. I like to think we’re very discreet when we’re in the classroom, and the kids don’t really focus on it that much.”

According to Burnham, 80% of children who receive special education services meet their goals and exit the program. 

“I was in special education as a child,” Burnham said. “I was in it for two years, and I was exited. It wasn’t anything that ever impacted my ability to become a principal later in my life. It’s not something that stopped me from being able to go to college. There was a gap in my understanding, and they filled it and that’s what happens for the most for the majority of students.” 

For students who will not exit, Burnham and his team provide employment and life skills support.

Burnham and MacPherson accepted the award on behalf of their department at the Alaska State Special Education Conference on Feb. 7. According to Burnham, Skagway School is one of two districts in the entire state with a fully staffed special education program. Special education paraprofessionals include Peggy Hoff, Victoria Jacobson, Andrew Nadon, Peyton Rodig, Haley Whiteman and Benjamin Woolard.