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Spring 2001 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Special Education Serves Diverse Students

By Tommy Young, Staff Writer with the Plainview Daily Herald

Reprint courtesy of the Plainview Daily Herald

Many people think of mentally disabled children when they think about special education programs. But director John Hightower says the Plainview ISD Special Education program has evolved into an all-encompassing project.

"We serve students with all manner of both physical and mental special needs. We strive to give all of our students, disabled or not, a fair shot at having equal access to a free public education."

The district serves 855 students with special needs and a number of the students have physical disabilities. The district has a wide array of programs to help students who need more than traditional instruction.

"We rely on a lot of technology to help our students compete on a level playing field," said Hightower. "We also employ several individuals with specific training who incorporate the technology to assist our students."

The district has one physical therapist, two occupational therapists, a school psychologist, a speech therapist, and several teaching assistants who give the students individual attention.

One Plainview student who receives a great deal of assistance from the various technologies and individuals involved in the ISD Special Education Program is Jeffrey Pruett.

He is a 16-year-old freshman at Plainview High. He has been diagnosed with Friedreich's Ataxia, one of the 40-plus types of Muscular Dystrophy.

"It is a neurological disease that attacks the muscles, but Jeffrey has been hit pretty hard," explains his mother, Jeanie Pruett. "It doesn't normally attack as early in life as it did Jeffrey. It also has affected his vision - he is legally blind - and his hearing. He is deaf, and it doesn't normally do that."

Jeffrey is confined to a wheelchair and has lost the ability to swallow, necessitating his use of a feeding tube. But Jeffrey's mind is sharp and vibrant.

As his father Brian put it: "His body is confined to that wheelchair but his mind is free, and he makes the most of that freedom."

"Jeffrey has the same hopes and dreams as any other 16-year-old. He wants to have a girl friend and go to college and be a productive part of society," says his mother.

Jeffrey also has the Special Education program at Plainview High helping him be as free as possible and attaining his goals.

"I think the school district and Mr. Hightower absolutely do the best they can to provide Jeffrey and all of their disabled students the best education they can," said Mrs. Pruett. "They try and get him the kind of equipment he needs, and they've even gone as far as to rearrange the bus schedule where he is the last one on the route so he doesn't become fatigued due to his bus ride. They've even customized his class schedule where they allow him to take two blocks of art class."

Jeffrey displays an extraordinary talent as an artist that belies his physical limitations _ enough talent that he is entering an art contest for disabled students sponsored by the Helen Keller Foundation.

Art teacher Sandy Smith feels Jeffrey's talent inspires able-bodied students around him.

"Seeing the amount of talent he has and what he can achieve amazes them. He has a remarkable ability to transfer what he sees to paper or canvas. He is full of life and he brings that quality to his art work. I believe it inspires other students to go beyond what they expect of themselves," said Mrs. Smith.

"He wants to be part of what's going on and in art class he is able to do just that," added Mrs. Pruett.

Classmate Bryson Davis, who is a football and basketball player for the Bulldogs, agrees with the assessment of both women: "It's not every day you see a person with his disabilities do the type of work that he can do. He's better than most of us in here."

"He's 10 times better than I am," chimed in another classmate.

Other than his limitations, Jeffrey is much like any other 16-year-old boy.

When asked what his favorite kind of art project was, Jeffrey responded through teaching assistant Herminia Zuniga: "Painting."

When pushed further Jeffrey admits, "I like painting pretty girls the most," his response inviting a chuckle from his classmates seated near by.

Mrs. Zuniga has been with Jeffrey since his fifth grade year. The two have developed a special bond.

"Jeffrey is unable to communicate with his peers because they don't know sign language, so the only people he is able to communicate with besides us are Mrs. (Jane) Holt, Deaf Education teacher for Plainview schools, and his teaching assistants Glenn Truett and Herminia Zuniga," said Mr. Pruett. "At an age when you have a lot of questions to ask and no one to give the answers but those who can communicate with you, they have a special relationship that is deeper than what most students and their teachers have."

Mrs. Holt indicates that, hopefully, the communication barrier between Jeff and his peers will lessen thanks to technology provided by the district.

"We are in the process of having a laptop computer mounted on Jeffrey's wheelchair. It has Internet access and is loaded with AOL Instant Messenger, so his friends can tell when he is on line and they can write messages to him."

"In an indirect way, having the computer will help Jeffrey with his fine motor skills, and strengthen his hands and shoulder muscles, but it is mostly for social interaction and communication," said Occupational Therapist Gretchen Foster, who holds therapy sessions with Jeffrey every other week.

The Pruetts are well aware of the fact that their son is in a very precarious situation, but they have a "life is terminal" attitude and focus on the fact of living life to its fullest.

They feel that the special education program of the Plainview school district helps their son live the same way.

"Everyone from Mr. Hightower to Mrs. Holt and Mrs. Zuniga and the therapists do an excellent job at letting Jeffrey experience school as normally as possible and by doing so enhance the quality of his life," Brian Pruett said.

Jeff Pruett works on an art project. He is legally blind and has to be extremely close to the subject he is drawing. Jeffrey is entering a drawing in a national art contest for disabled students sponsored by Helen Keller Foundation.

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