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Special education teacher Erich Sollenberger thought his high school in Jefferson Parish, La., was a nice place for students with disabilities, but there was something missing.

A miniature golf course.

The Grace King High School teacher got the idea to build one when he saw a commercial for miniature golf on the television set that is always on in his classroom. One of his students with autism needs to have the steady background noise.

But one last question lingered. Would the students with wheelchairs be able to use it? He asked a group of such students.

"They laughed at me and said, 'No, we can't fit through the course,' " Mr. Sollenberger said. "I knew that's what we could do. We had to build it for them and everyone else. It took me years and years to think of an idea that people would back with funding."

Mr. Sollenberger and a friend, a landscape architect, came up with the plan for a nine-hole golf course at the 1,500-student school. The plans eventually included improvements such as a boardwalk, porch swings accessible to students in wheelchairs, and an outdoor classroom.

"I'm not even a golfer," said Mr. Sollenberger, 45, who has been teaching for 12 years. "I was just looking for an idea to improve the campus."

Then he faced the issue of how to pay for the project. He raised almost $8,000 by passing out fliers and appealing to community members. Hoping to collect another $1,000, he got in touch with the local sheriff's office, which sometimes helps out on projects for youngsters.

Instead, the sheriff's office pledged $25,000 from its budget. Law-enforcement officers will be able to use the school facility for community relations, Mr. Sollenberger said.

It was so much money that the school board had to approve the gift, which it recently did with no dissent.

Mr. Sollenberger said construction on the project would begin soon. The $33,000 project will be built in the school's central quadrangle, Mr. Sollenberger said, and is expected to take at least six months to finish.

"It's something the special education community can give back to the school," the teacher said. "Students with or without disabilities can enjoy it."

"This is like a dream that is coming true," he said. "My real hope is other school systems will pick up on this idea."

—Lisa Goldstein

Vol. 23, Issue 9, Page 3

Published in Print: October 29, 2003, as Take Note

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