Special education is something very close to Ms. Jennifer Ponton. The Martin Luther King Middle School teacher has been doing it for the past 26 years, bringing her experience in the matter from many places outside of Beaumont, Texas.
Ms. Ponton has lived the necessities of special education students herself. Her brother and two sons have needed more attention than other students due to their handicaps.
“It’s a calling for me. My brother was born with Down Syndrome and I have a child, I have two sons who were in the Special Ed system. One of them has Asperger and high functional autism. Another son had speech deficits at one time, and he received services,” said Ponton, who works with students that have specific necessities at the school. “I have been a Special Education teacher for 26 years, teaching in different states, different areas of the country. I taught in the Midwest, taught in big cities.”
A little over one tenth of the school’s population (11%) are students with disabilities. Ms. Ponton and her assistants love what they do with the students and enjoy every achievement they have.
“(It’s) super satisfying. It’s not even a job, it’s like fun. I enjoy seeing the lightbulb come on, I enjoy seeing kids engage from the time they walk in my classroom until they leave. Every moment matters to me,” explains Ms. Ponton.
As different students have different handicaps, Ms. Ponton approaches each of them individually at first, but always works with them as a group. She believes that experience will be a first step for them being ready for the world outside the school.
“I do what’s called stations. I may pull a group and work on phonics and oral comprehension. I may have my assistant work with others that may just need manipulative letters,” adds Ms. Ponton. “If you walk in my classroom they all are doing different things and at some point I may pull them altogether to work on one target, but I’m giving each of them different kinds of accommodations.”
Students draw strength from each other
Getting them together for different activities helps the special education students to draw strength from each other. Celebrating their successes, altogether, is something that will help them as the keep growing.
“At one point they work independently and at another point I join them together because in the real world they are going to have to work with other people,” said Ms. Ponton.
One of the approaches that has been successful for the special education teacher is giving them tickets each time the students get their lessons right. She keeps adding tickets during the week, “paying” them every Friday so they canCould be used for “shopping”, an activity that brings the children a glimpse of what a workplace will look like to them as adults.
“So, at the end of the week on Friday they all get their check, they get an envelope with all their tickets that I call their payday, so they go and they get to go shopping, buy stuff with their tickets. They are working constantly for me all week to get their paychecks the way they want. And it also helps many of them with their behavior,” explains Ms. Ponton.
One of the challenges of special education teachers are behavioral problems, as some conditions will exacerbate the student's personality. This system has helped Ms. Ponton to reduce to almost zero any of those situations.
One of her students has Down Syndrome, which usually presents specific challenges with attention spans, verbal memory and expressive communication. The student has shown progress on behavioral issues as related by the parent to Ms. Ponton.
“I was tickled last week as I was playing an activity with the students. I had the girl with the boys, and I didn’t think he understood that the boys were winning so he jumped up and started torquing along with all of them. He was celebrating too because he was excited. Even though he didn’t understand, just seeing the joy made him feel good,” recalls Ms. Ponton.
Technology has been game changer
Technology plays an important role to special educators. King Middle School uses interactive boards and touchscreens to work with the special education students. This has helped Ms. Ponton to face the challenges that some of her students present according to their specific conditions.
“It’s a game changer because to be honest, over 50 percent of my lessons are presented with technology because you have some kids that can’t write, some have short attention span, so the technology stimulates them and gets them more involved and engaged in the learning process,” adds Ms. Ponton.
Since Green Dot Southeast Texas started its partnership with the Beaumont Independent School District, additional attention has been given to the special education students. The needs of all the students are satisfied as their performance is now part of the school’s accountability.
“I have some students that I can’t reach with conventional methods, so I tell her (principal Marion Williams) that I need to order some more things. Anything I ask for I pretty much get,” said Ms. Ponton. “I like them because some programs don’t have enough staff. I was telling the teachers, the parents were complaining they didn’t believe in the story test and I was telling them that before the kids scores didn’t count. Now the game has changed, all scores count, now it’s important to invest in them because they are part of your accountability rating.”
An important step in helping special education students is to diagnose their conditions properly for schools like King Middle School to help them learn and become as self-sufficient as possible.
“A lot of the children are underrepresented. I think the biggest problem for specials schools like this in the city is that kids’ self-esteem are so low, because they have experienced so much failures so they are afraid to take risks,” explains Ms. Ponton. “A lot of these children are not being diagnosed and some of these children have given up on learning because they have not been successful.”