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:
- Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, better known by its initialism, PBIS.
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.
- Establishing “sensory diets” for some students.
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.”