In the past five months, the Wisconsin School for the Blind and Visually Impaired has reopened the school store, improved security and created a giant bulletin board to celebrate students for their efforts to be kind.
These might seem like small things, but they reflect the larger changes in the school’s culture.
At the center of many of those changes is Susan Tucker, who started as the school’s principal in October.
She loves the students, is amazed by the staff and would like to see more students with visual disabilities to come to the school, she said.
“We have so much to offer kids with visual impairment,” Tucker said.
Tucker, who previously worked in special education in Racine, brings with her advanced degrees in curriculum and instruction, special education and the schooling and certification to be an administrator.
When she interviewed for the job, she hadn’t been to the school but knew about it.
She and her special education colleagues in Racine had evaluated a student for placement at the Wisconsin School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. On the day they toured the school, Tucker wasn’t able to go.
“Our team was so impressed with what they offered here,” Tucker said.
That stuck in her mind.
And when she arrived, she was struck by the students’ attitudes.
“You’re never, ever going to meet a group of kids that are going to say to you, ‘You’re going to love our school,’” Tucker said. “The students here are comfortable with who they are.”
Tucker already has launched some new programs including:
The system, which is used in the Janesville School District, rewards students for positive behaviors. It also works to teach students, in a nonjudgmental manner, what the proper behaviors are.
“I might hear, ‘We’re struggling with this child, and let’s see how many times in a day he does something wrong,’” she said. “That’s the typical way of doing things. I agree, we need a baseline.”
But its more important to focus on what is positive, she said.
“We have so many kids here that are so well behaved,” Tucker said. “But they are not recognized because we are focused on the tantrums.”
Students are rewarded for positive behavior.
A portion of the students at the school have behavior problem that are sometimes related to an underlying condition. Sensory diets can help kids with attention problems or those who are easily over-stimulated.
A sensory diet allows a child to take breaks from academic, social or other settings that are stressful for them. It might include jumping on a trampoline, doing jumping jacks or holding a yoga pose. Each diet is designed with a particular child in mind.
She’s also established mindfulness breathing exercises to help students deal with stressors.
On Friday mornings, a group of students spend time in the warm water pool before heading home for the weekend.
All of those activities help students cope and reduce the amount of challenging behaviors.
“I believe in being proactive rather than reactive,” Tucker said.
On Thursday and Friday, students at the school were participating in the Braille Olympics—not something you’d see at any other school.
Tucker has a vision for the school that includes increasing enrollment, which now stands at 58.
But because the school is run by the state, it is not allowed to advertise.
“Kids in (traditional) schools are limited to what sports they can be in and what activities they can do,” Tucker said. “We have student council, we have forensics, we have swimming.
“Kids here are a part of everything.”
When six members from the Janesville First Baptist Church descended into San Jaun, Puerto Rico, last week, they noticed the blue roofs.
“We found out later it was tarps,” Julia Amstutz said.
Hurricane Maria pulverized Puerto Rico when it hit in September, officially leaving at least 64 dead and millions without power or water. Five months later, many tarps remain.
The Janesville church members arrived in Puerto Rico on Feb. 6. Members of a mission trip team started planning a project last year, and they were originally going to the Dominican Republic. A twist of fate landed them in Puerto Rico to fix a roof instead.
At a church in Cidra, about 30 miles south of San Juan, part of a carport roof was ripped from the church by Maria’s 150 mph winds, volunteer Dan Drozdowicz said. The torn piece cartwheeled across the building’s metal roof, punching about 26 holes in the sanctuary’s ceiling.
Drozdowicz said the piece had to weigh at least 80,000 pounds.
One of the holes in the ceiling was 16 feet wide by 13 feet long, Drozdowicz said. Another member of the trip, Jean Schaefer, said the sanctuary was soaked in water and covered in black mold.
They had to wear hazmat suits while cleaning inside the sanctuary, Schaefer said.
The storm devastated many parts of the Cidra church, but the Janesville group’s sole objective was to patch the holes in the roof so the congregation could start using the sanctuary again, member Larry Turner said.
The Janesville team partnered with other volunteers through the American Baptist Men disaster relief team. Both groups stayed in a large house together and worked eight-hour days cleaning debris and patching holes.
The relief team provided supplies and took care of the housing, lunch and dinner.
“We went to a local Ace Hardware store, and it was a huge store, much bigger than ours,” trip member Ron Westby said.
“And they had everything. And it was packed.”
Schaefer and Julia and David Amstutz worked on the ground, cleaning up debris from broken floor tiles and the crumbling ceiling.
Turner and Westby helped fix damage to the front of the building, Turner said. Drozdowicz spent most of his time on the roof, cutting the old metal out and installing new metal, he said.
“They were tough, long days,” Drozdowicz said.
Before the Janesville team arrived, nothing had been done to the church since the hurricane. The congregation has been using a room to the side of the church for services, David said. And even after a week’s work, the church remains damaged. The sanctuary is still inoperable, and it will be for a while, Westby said.
But by the end of their visit Feb. 13, all the holes over the sanctuary had been patched.
“It didn’t seem like we were doing all that much, but it meant an awful lot to the people there,” Drozdowicz said. “That really warmed my heart.”
Westby said it’s hard to feel like the team made a dent in helping Puerto Rico, but that’s not the case, he said.
“It doesn’t seem like you do a lot, but you take (your work) times how many hundreds or thousands of other groups or people helping. It makes a big difference,” he said.
On one of the final days of the trip, the Janesville volunteers attended service at the church Sunday morning. Some members of the Cidra congregation stood in the sanctuary for the first time in five months.
“You could sense their appreciation, even for as little as we had done,” Drozdowicz said. “That gave me an immense sense of gratitude.”
Turner said the trip wasn’t about repairing the church but about instilling hope and showing the locals that “there is a future,” he said.
“You could see the hope within the people,” Turner said. “I think that hope is not only within (the church) but within their lives. We feel that we have accomplished that creating of hope.”
Jerry Amstutz, pastor at the Janesville First Baptist Church, wasn’t able to go on the trip, but he echoed the optimism from the trip members.
“The pastor (in Cidra) is in a wheelchair yet has a sweet spirit,” Amstutz said. “The custodian of the church has cancer, and these people have been spending so many hours trying to get their own lives and families in shape. It’s really been difficult for that church. But I think the hope that our team and the others have given is wonderful.”
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