I’ve been Walking in the Shoes of our students and staff since I joined the school district in 2010, and it always brings me joy as I see the dedication and love all our staff have for our students.
This spring I had the chance to spend one Thursday early-dismissal day with special education paraeducator Joanne Szegedi, walking in her shoes as she works with students in our BRIDGES special education program at Lowell Elementary School. (Just a note that due to the needs of a particular student, the day I was there Joanne was focused primarily on one individual student, so while I spent considerable time with Joanne, it was really a day experiencing the entire BRIDGES classroom.)
A little background on the BRIDGES program: Just like the diversity we see with learning or physical differences among our students, we have diversity in students’ social-emotional learning needs as well. BRIDGES stands for “Behavior Re-education in Developing Growth and Emotional Strength,” and the program serves students who have some challenges regarding their emotional behavior. The BRIDGES program provides an academic curriculum within a structured behavior management system, with integration and mainstreaming into general education. We have BRIDGES programs at four locations: Parkview Elementary, Lowell Elementary, Whatcom Middle and Squalicum High schools.
Lowell’s BRIDGES classrooms are wonderful, although certainly sometimes challenging, positive and structured places of learning. I got to spend the day in one of these rooms with a half-dozen amazing students and four wonderful educators, including Joanne, who has been a paraeducator in our BRIDGES program for 19 years, working at both Sunnyland and Lowell. The rest of the BRIDGES team I spent time with was teacher Logan Hilgers and paraeducators Katie Lopez and Tim Massey.
I arrived at 7:30 a.m., and we started by setting up breakfast in our classroom. We then walked the school grounds from the bus to school ensuring the walkway was free of obstructions and distractions, literally smoothing the path for her kids to get to their classroom and start their day off right. I marveled at Joanne’s amazing attention to detail. Every moment of the day is a learning opportunity, and I watched Joanne start her day by setting the stage for her students to have the most successful day they could.
At 7:45 a.m. we started greeting the buses, with lots of adults out to help students get transitioned into their school day. I heard stories about every student as each arrived, and I witnessed the strong connection students have with their bus drivers. Our district transportation department coordinates specialized transportation for nearly 400 students per day, in addition to all our regular bus routes. The bus drivers are really important people in the life of our kids, as they’re often the first school personnel to see them in the morning and the last in the afternoon. Thanks, bus drivers!
During this bus time I also had the opportunity for a great conversation with a parent, who advocated for additional adults on the bus. I’ve heard this throughout my time in the district; we do this when we can and are always looking for ways to be strategic with our resources.
We all made our way down to the classroom, and at 8 a.m. school started. It was like magic: we went from casual conversations and friendly welcomes, to orchestrated engagement from each staff member in synchronization. Like in all elementary classrooms, you could tell that predictable routines and structure are a huge part of what makes a BRIDGES classroom successful.
I got to settle in and meet the students in this class. One had a huge “jawbreaker” candy and was excited that he had it. Another was thrilled to have me visiting and asked if I was the boss of all the principals. I told him I get to support all our principals, including Lowell’s wonderful principal, Mary Sepler. A waterfall video and calming music was playing, as the intentional setup of the room and spaces for each student allowed them to start their day calmly and positively. BRIDGES staff are continually collecting data on their students’ needs, growth and work to strategically decrease behavioral or emotional triggers and increase student progress toward their learning and behavior goals.
Additionally, all our specialized programs work for the greatest possible inclusion into regular education classes.
Each student had a space and began working on their morning routine. I heard one student confide to an adult, “I might be a bit grumpier today,” and the adult responded, “Thanks for letting me know.” Self-knowledge, self-regulation, emotional awareness, and mutual respect on display! In our work on teaching all our kids social-emotional learning, we know that power struggles don’t work—we reframe our thinking and start off with success. (I’m sure we all know some adults who could benefit from this!)
Students ate breakfast in their classroom as well as had snacks available throughout their day. I reflected on how our food programs have changed over the years to help make sure students have the fuel they need when they need it and are able to learn.
Joanne began her day one-on-one with a student. They identified goals for the day and did their morning routine. This student has a plant named Tiny on their desk. Part of their routine was to tell “Tiny” to have a great day, and Tiny has a sign reminding the student to have a great day, too! JoAnne was so kind and thoughtful with each student interaction throughout the day.
At 8:15 a.m. our class had its morning meeting. Most of our elementary and many middle schools hold regular classroom- or school-based meetings as part of social-emotional learning. One student felt too tired to join, but a magic comment from Tim had him joining right in, another example of how well the BRIDGES staff knows their students and use their incredible patience, humor and intelligence to know how to respond. The relationships were very deep in this room, and I was on a steep learning curve!
We then moved into our math lesson. During the lesson, one student needed to take a break, so Joanne took him outside for a walk. Just then, I got a message on my phone that 911 had been called from Lowell because a student had run off campus. My first worry was that it was my fault and it was our student outside with Joanne! Once we checked and it wasn’t that student, I went to the office to help, making sure dean of students Sarah Walker had the support she needed (and also that she knew I had nothing to do with it!). Principal Sepler and another staff member were down the street with the student trying to ensure the student stayed safe and came back to school. I noted this as another example of how having lots of support, like our deans, counselors and assistant principals, is crucial across our district, and is something we have invested a lot in in the past years.
I went back to the classroom where students were writing to the prompt, “If I were invisible, I would…” Interestingly, many of the imaginative and funny responses had to do with ice cream. There was a lot of love for ice cream in the room. Later, I watched a student doing math on the computer and I asked him how he did his work so fast and accurately; he responded, “I’m good at math!” Another student had done some beautiful art. The vibe in the room was that of The Promise outcomes—that we will develop students who are mathematicians, writers, and artists (and more).
I also got to help another student with math on the computer. He was having a bit of trouble figuring out the solution. I suggested a different way to solve it. He looked at me and asked, “Are you sure?” I was a bit nervous, but said, “I think so…” I knew that getting a wrong answer might be an upsetting experience for this student—even though no one loves to be wrong, of course! He entered it, pressed the button, and we were…right. (Whew.) We celebrated: “Yes!”
We finished up our math / learning lesson at 10:25 a.m. with P.E. next up, and the class was incredibly excited to go, because it’s the gymnastics unit. Over the years our awesome P.E. teachers have built a system where each elementary school takes turns with real gymnastics equipment like a balance beam and horse to build gymnastics skills. We share this resource when it’s not in use by our high school gymnasts in the winter. Unfortunately, we couldn’t leave for P.E. until 10:30 a.m.—those were the longest five minutes ever! The staff did a great job using this transition time to remind everyone about expectations and appropriate behavior in P.E., and then with much anticipation we got to head to the gym!
We all had a blast practicing gymnastics skills with Ms. Norwood, Lowell’s outstanding P.E. teacher. We played Jumanji and snakes. It was a great time for all students to move, jump and run, and provided lots of opportunities for engagement. One student became overstimulated, and Joanne again used her skills helping to deescalate and refocus them so they were able to rejoin the class.
After lunch we moved into reading groups and I had the opportunity to work one-on-one with a student who needed some time outside. This was one of my favorite parts of the day. We went outside and played basketball together. It was a great time to talk about his life and his future.
The school day was nearly at an end and it was time to clean up and get ready for the bus, which turned into an adventure when a student didn’t have a piece of equipment they needed to ride the way they normally did. It was a complex situation that took a team to solve, including multiple staff and our bus drivers. It took a while to get the student situated and on their way home. But no complaints—it was always clear how much staff at Lowell love their students and want them to be successful, just like all our staff want for all our kids.
In just this one day with Joanne and her team in BRIDGES, I could see some of the different strengths and talents of each student—musician, artist, athlete, communicator and performer, and more. They are our kids learning and growing in their own ways, and dedicated educators like Joanne, with her vast experience helping this certain population of kids show growth toward their goals, are incredibly important as we strive to include all students in our public schools.
Thank you again to Joanne Szegedi and the BRIDGES team for welcoming me.
“Walking in the Shoes” is an ongoing series where Dr. Baker spends time out in our schools “walking in the shoes” of a staff member or student to shine light on our diverse district. You can find earlier entries here. If you have an idea for a walking in the shoes experience, let us know!