Room for growth
Group effort for Marion County special needs class teaches many lessons
By Terri Darr McLean
In an old carpentry workshop inside Marion County High School, a group of students with moderate to severe disabilities have found a new home – complete with a kitchen, living and dining area, bathroom, library and technology center.
The instructional suite, called Room 126, is nothing fancy, unless you consider the students’ previous digs: a roughly 30-foot-by-30-foot regular classroom with little more than a couple of tables and chairs to accommodate eight to 12 students. But it is certainly more conducive to learning and more comfortable than what they had before, said Stephanie Nalley, functional mental disability teacher and a major force behind Room 126.
Photo: Room 126, a former carpentry workshop at Marion County High School, contains a comfortable “living area” designed to feel like home for students with moderate to severe disabilities. Most everything in the living area, as well as the rest of the expansive instructional suite, was donated by members of the community.
“This is the way it should be,” she said as she showed off the cavernous new space filled with cozy furnishings, appliances, books, computers and other learning aids that provide students with educational and real-life experiences to help them become more independent.
Now, instead of jockeying for time in the home economics classroom to learn cooking skills, Nalley’s students have their own stove, refrigerator, dishwasher and other appliances to use. Instead of crowding around two tables to complete their school work as well as their physical and occupational therapy exercises, they now have adequate space to work and move around. And instead of trekking to another part of the school for bathroom breaks, the students have their own private facilities.
“These kids do not need to be in a regular classroom all day long,” Nalley said while watching the hive of activity now buzzing around her classroom. “They have choices here, they have choices of where they want to be. If a student works better on the couch, we’ll do work on the couch if that’s what it takes to get the job done. Or if a student works better at the kitchen table versus the student work table, that’s where we’ll do it. We move around a lot. We try to use every section of this room on a daily basis, somehow, some way.”
Room 126, which opened its doors to students in August 2012, is the culmination of a nearly yearlong collaboration that began when the carpentry workshop was moved to the district’s renovated vocational school and Nalley saw the potential the deserted space held for her students. She quickly staked her claim and got approval from Principal Stacey Hall, who himself has a special-needs child.
“Once he said OK, we kind of ran with it,” she said.
Marion County school board Vice Chairman Edward Hacker expressed amazement at how Room 126 turned out. “It’s something I would have never envisioned,” he said.
Putting it together
To work around budgetary constraints, Nalley and her five teaching assistants reached out to the Marion County community to get support for equipment and other materials. The response was overwhelming; businesses, community groups and individuals donated everything from a new washer and dryer to couches, toilets and cabinetry materials. One woman – a sister to one of Room 126’s students – collected pots and pans from her co-workers at a bank.
“This wouldn’t have been possible without the community,” said Nalley.
In addition, Nalley recruited other teachers and students to help turn the cold, industrial-looking room into a warm and inviting space. Students in Greg Conley’s Project Lead the Way engineering design and development class, for example, worked with Nalley to create a floor plan for Room 126.
“I was very excited about this project,” Conley said, “because here we had a project that my students not only get to do a research and design … but it gave me an opportunity to teach them about dealing with (special needs) kids, which to me was probably more important than the design part.”
Students in Danny Taylor’s carpentry class also got involved by making the cabinets for the kitchen area.
“There is just a lot of collaboration on all ends with this project,” said Amber Ervin, director of special education and preschool for the Marion County school district.
And the collaboration continues. To do their part, for example, the Room 126 students wash bed linens and other items for one of the district’s preschools.
“These students a lot of times are the ones that have things done for them. But this actually gives them something to do for somebody else,” Ervin said.
In addition, the Marion County Board of Education recently approved spending up to $3,000 for a changing table that will be used for students who need this feature.
“When we found out they needed a changing table, we approved it,” said Hacker, the board vice chairman.
Because it is new, there is no hard data to measure Room 126’s results. But Nalley said she doesn’t need such data to convince her that the new classroom has made a positive impact.
“I see a difference in the kids,” she said. “They’re more lively. They’re more talkative. They’re more outgoing.”
Physical therapist Tiffney Deopere agreed.
“I think it (Room 126) has made a huge impact on the kids,” she said. “It has affected them in so many ways that it is hard to express.”
— McLean is a writer from Lexington