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Special Services Staff Help Students Develop Critical Skills, Access Education

Occupational Therapist Michelle Gangi works with a student.

When Apollo Elementary School kindergartner Lila walks into Michelle Gangi’s occupational therapy room, Gangi helps her wash her hands and then offers her a choice. “Lila, do you want to do putty or pumpkins,” she asks, holding up a craft that requires cutting and gluing. Lila chooses the paper pumpkin activity. 

Gangi asks what Lila needs in order to cut the pieces out. In response, Lila, who uses an iPad to supplement her communication, touches the screen so that the device reads aloud the words “want” and “scissors.” Throughout their 20-minute session, Gangi offers Lila choice after choice as the two work on skills such as cutting along lines, ripping strips of paper and gluing the pieces onto a pumpkin outline. Lila chooses orange scissors, asks for help when she gets stuck, and counts aloud with Gangi. Finishing the first activity, they move on to work on tracing, then practice writing her name, and finish with a task that calls for Lila to fill a pretend pie shell with a variety of play fruits. It’s designed to strengthen her hands and work on coordination. Holding a pair of yellow plastic tongs, Lila moves red grapes, green apples, yellow lemons and other fruit into the pie. They chat as she works. “Lila, do you like to eat apples?” Gangi asks. “Yes,” Lila says, smiling. 

In addition to occupational therapy, some students in our district receive related services such as physical therapy, speech language pathology, hearing or vision services and more. While the state and federal government provide some funding for Special Education, there is still a large gap between that funding and the actual cost. In the 2021-2022 school year, the district spent about $41.8 million on Special Services; of that total, about $11.8 million was covered by taxpayers from local levy funds. 

Our district staff includes critical teams such as school psychologists, nurses, social workers, Board Certified Behavior Analysts, home-based services and more.  

“It’s really about: What does this child need at this moment in time, and then providing those services,” said Sharine Carver, Executive Director of Special Services. “The precision of programming, and giving each student exactly what they need for the amount of time that they need it is a focus of ISD Special Services.” 

Here’s a glimpse of a few of some of our services: 

  • Vision Team: two Teachers of the Visually Impaired, Jennifer Soltis and Jennifer Bae; one Orientation and Mobility Specialist (currently an open position we are hoping to fill soon), and five braillists.  

  • Deaf & Hard of Hearing Team: one Teacher of the Deaf, Sara Porter; and one audiologist, Lindsey Engeset.  

  • Home Services: one Special Education Teacher, Lucy Campbell, who teaches medically fragile students who cannot attend school in person. Several other specialists also support our home services students, including a speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, assistive technology team members and a teacher of the visually impaired.   

  • Assistive Tech Team, a multidisciplinary team of specialists who provide support to students and staff across the district in both the Special Services and Student Interventions departments.  This team includes a speech and language pathologist, Madalena McAllen; an occupational therapist, Amanda Weinberg; and a technology support specialist, Dhashnaa Chinnasamy.   

Each of these teams works across the district serving our youngest learners in Early Childhood Education through our oldest students in the Academy for Community Transition (ACT) Program. 

“The work that these teams do is truly remarkable, and so tailored to the unique needs of the students and families they serve,” said Teresa Cowan, principal on special assignment and director of these special services. “I get to see magic happen regularly when these amazing minds come together to support student learning.”  

In Early Childhood Education, we provide early intervention services, which are instrumental in helping our youngest students access educational opportunities before kindergarten. 

Back at Apollo Elementary, the occupational therapy office is filled with color: a cheerful yellow rug on the floor, a pattern of vibrant flags in the window and bins full of foam letters, blocks, puzzles, manipulatives and art supplies are neatly organized on shelves.  

When another student named Wyatt enters Gangi’s office, he’s chattering excitedly about the book fair. At Gangi’s request, Wyatt reads the instructions from an activity sheet aloud, then selects the scissors, glue and crayons that he’ll need to complete the tasks of coloring, cutting out, sorting and gluing the items into the correct categories. They work on several other skills, then Gangi asks Wyatt if he would like to spend the last couple of minutes drawing. He excitedly picks out particular colors of markers, then begins drawing the outline of a famous ship. “I’m drawing a Titanic,” Wyatt says. “The Titanic was the largest steamer ship.” 

Ready for her next session, Gangi welcomes a fourth grade student, who works on similar skills but in different activities. She hands him a tub of green putty, and asks him what’s hidden in the stretchy but resilient green material. “Something special?” the student guesses. He’s right – Gangi has hidden 10 beads in the putty and challenges him to find them all. The two move on to work on writing, using a special pencil grip that encourages the proper way to hold a pencil. When the student has a bit of trouble focusing throughout their session, Gangi kindly but persistently redirects him to his task. They’ve worked together for multiple years, which has helped them develop a rapport. 

It’s clear that for this student, that relationship matters, and having the chance to spend more time hanging out with Gangi is important to him. Several times, the fourth grader asks whether they might be able to play “Pancake Pile-Up,” one of his favorite games. “When my schedule allows, I enjoy spending extra time going into my students’ classrooms, which allows for further observation of their skills and fostering of the therapeutic relationships I have with my students,” says Gangi, who works with students at Apollo and Newcastle elementary schools. As they finish their final activity for that day’s session, working on tracing, letter identification and proper grip on the pencil, Gangi promises that she’ll try to visit his homeroom class later in the day during choice time.