Special Education

Moving in a Special Direction

By John Gehring — October 26, 2004 10 min read
An Alaska district puts a heavy emphasis on meeting the physical education needs of students with disabilities.

Pam Skogstad ties red, orange, and green scarves loosely around the teenagers’ wrists.

“Hey, guys, let’s do some stretching,” she says in a perky voice that belies the early-morning hour.

The students begin straining to raise their hands and arms toward eye level, every inch a quivering struggle. Skogstad makes her way around the classroom, cheering on the group of teenagers at Dimond High School, who have Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, and other profound disabilities.

A 7th grader plays floor hockey

After the stretching warm-up, she plays music from a CD-ROM, and the room pulsates to the beat of rapper Ton Loc singing “Funky Cold Medina.” Four teaching assistants begin dancing in front of the students’ wheelchairs, holding the teenagers’ hands as they shake and spin to the music. One amused student can’t stop clapping as his teaching assistant does the “Chicken Dance.”

The light exercises are designed to be fun, but they are also helping these special-needs students get in better physical shape, develop motor skills, and improve coordination and flexibility.

Here in this 50,000-student Alaska school district, Skogstad and other itinerant teachers of “adapted” physical education travel from school to school addressing what national experts say is a vastly ignored need: high-quality physical education for students with disabilities.

The national push to address the rising problem of childhood obesity is especially relevant for this group, because experts say such students are more likely to be obese than their peers without disabilities.

Despite the progress that has been made over the years to address the needs of children with disabilities, the vast majority of those students, experts point out, are unable to take part in traditional sports activities, such as youth soccer or baseball, leaving them few outlets for physical activity.

Compounding the problem, special education advocates argue, is the broad leeway each state has in defining how adapted physical education should work in its schools. That discretion, they say, leaves plenty of room for neglect.

“The needs of children with disabilities in physical education have not been met,” says Tim Davis, a professor of adapted physical education at the State University of New York College at Cortland who is also a leading advocate for national standards addressing adapted physical education. “There is a lack of opportunity.”

Recently, though, national leaders have begun paying more attention to those concerns.

Last spring, Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, launched a campaign to encourage good health and fitness for the nation’s 6 million students with disabilities. More than 50 national organizations are pairing up mentors with young people with disabilities to help them increase their physical activity and improve their eating habits as part of the campaign.

An hour after leading the stretching exercises in the Dimond High school class, Skogstad hits the road in her green SUV Expedition, a hot cup of coffee at her side. Every school day, well before the sun comes up over the Chugach Mountains, the petite 50-year-old makes the 80-mile trek from her home in the former gold-rush town of Hope to Anchorage. Here she makes her rounds at several schools.

Skogstad’s next stop is Goldenview Middle School, where she works with 14-year-old J.D., who is riding a stationary bike. A few feet away from him, a 7th grader named Jacob walks on a treadmill. (The district has a policy that prohibits it from releasing information about students’ specific disabilities.)

Eighth grader Hannah tests her motor skills

J.D. seems distracted by the image of himself in the mirror that lines the wall. He looks at himself in the mirror and stops pedaling. Several times, Skogstad patiently guides him back into the exercise, at first leaning in close with a soft voice, and then later with a firmer tone to give more specific directions.

J.D. is making progress, though. Today, when he is done with the bike, he moves to a treadmill and walks for five minutes. It’s the longest he’s ever walked on the treadmill without a break. The result of the boy’s hard work: He has lost more than 50 pounds over the past several months.

Meanwhile, Jacob is only slightly winded as he finishes a vigorous 20-minute walk on his treadmill.

Just outside the fitness room, teaching assistants are slowly easing Jeremy and Hannah out of their wheelchairs so they can stretch out on a small mat.

Anchorage won the first grant that the U.S. Department of Education has given for adapted physical education.

“Here you go, Jeremy,” says an assistant, rolling over a huge ball that dwarfs the tiny 7thgrader. Because the ball is soft and light, he can use his arms and hands to push it just a few inches.

Next to him, Hannah, who also is in 7th grade, is lying flat on her back under a pyramid-shaped arc. Balls dangle down from a crossbar, and Hannah reaches up to hit them back and forth.

“Movement is so important for these kids,” says Skogstad, who has taught adapted physical education for two decades. “We have kids who have never been to a playground.”

For a number of reasons, the Anchorage district is in a better position than most school systems to improve fitness programs for students with disabilities. Last fall, Anchorage won the first grant from the U.S. Department of Education specifically designed to help improve adapted physical education. The grant provided $75,000 to buy a range of exercise equipment, and $34,000 for teacher training and staff development.

The grant has given Anchorage more opportunities to allow teachers of adapted physical education to work with general physical educators. It has also helped educators from the adapted-physical-education department here draft proposed state standards for their discipline. If adopted, they would be the first state standards in the country that address physical education for children with disabilities.

“We’re a district that is very fortunate, because we have good support for our physical educators,” says Sharon Vaissiere, the school system’s curriculum coordinator for health and physical education. “We’ve been able to increase the knowledge of the regular physical education teachers. We get them to see the possibilities for these students.”

Davis of the State University of New York campus in Cortland, who is also the chairman of the Adapted Physical Education National Standards project, notes that the adapted-physical-education department in Anchorage has worked hard to open multiple opportunities for students with disabilities to increase their physical activity.

The district, for example, has a partnership with Challenge Alaska, a nonprofit group that takes such students on downhill-skiing trips, outdoor-adventure hikes, and other therapeutic recreational activities. It also has partnerships with several community fitness centers.

Pam Skogstad helps 7th grader Michael

Beyond those opportunities, Davis says the district has “done a great job integrating kids with disabilities into the existing PE curriculum.”

That inclusive philosophy is in full view one morning at North Star Elementary School in Anchorage. Sam Reder—an adapted-physical-education teacher with a thick Brooklyn accent, a shaved head, and a black tie-dyed shirt—follows a 2nd grader named James everywhere he goes in the class, which is a mix of children with and without disabilities.

The class is playing a tag game called “Skunk,” and because James has trouble with his vision, Reder is serving as his guide.

“Oh, you got tagged,” Reder tells him, leaning his 6-foot, linebacker frame down to huddle with the 7-year-old. “Where do we have to go?”

‘The needs of children with disabilities in physical education have not been met.’

Reder takes James by the hand and leads him into the center circle of the basketball court, where the youngster does two “boogie woogies”—a twisting dance—and is then allowed back in the game.

“This is great because he’s fully included,” Reder says after class. “He is with his peers. Years ago, we pulled these kids out, and it made it easier for the system. But now, they get to interact with the other kids.”

A former college soccer player sits in a wheelchair in front of a group of 100 restless middle school students. Dave Poulin can walk, but today, the boyish, 34-year-old adapted-physical-education teacher is in the wheelchair—built with flexible wheels and other features designed for athletic use—to talk with a group of students at the district’s Hanshew Middle School about wheelchair etiquette.

One of his students in class today is deaf and uses a wheelchair. Poulin wants the other students to be more aware of his challenges as the group runs laps this afternoon.

“If you use a wheelchair,” he explains, “it’s an extension of your body.” He adds that it’s not appropriate to touch someone’s wheelchair without permission.

Patricia, a 12th grader dances in her wheelchair

Poulin asks for a volunteer who will use the chair for the rest of the period. After a few seconds of silence and awkward smiles, an 8th grader named Ryan jumps up. It’s the first time he’s ever been in a wheelchair. After a few twists and turns, he manages to wriggle his way into a cramped elevator that leads him up to the indoor track overlooking the gym floor.

“Let’s go for it,” Poulin tells him. “Let’s see what you can do.”

Ryan wheels the chair into the traffic of students making their way around the track. After a few laps, he is worn out. “It hurts,” Ryan says with a pained smile. “You can’t use your feet at all. I really feel it in my deltoids.”

It’s exactly what Poulin had in mind.

As he watches Ryan, Poulin talks about the challenges of his job. “You still have some physical education teachers who are dinosaurs, who are unwilling to accommodate,” he says. “That’s one of the biggest barriers we run into. You try and educate them and raise awareness. In the past, they would be afraid to even have a wheelchair in class. They would be afraid someone would get hurt. But hey, this is real life.”

Sweat rolling down her face, Sarah walks briskly on a treadmill stationed in front of a bank of TV sets at the Alaska Club, a fitness center here. The 21-year-old is exercising as part of a community-transition program the Anchorage public schools developed to help special-needs students take steps into the real world. Country music blares on her headset as she finishes her walking.

Sandy Ingaldson, a veteran teacher of adapted physical education, keeps an eye on Sarah and Nate, a 21-year-old who is using weight-training machines.

Ingaldson carries small yellow sticky notes as she walks around the club. She places one that says “Stop” on the 12 hand to remind Nate when to finish a part of his workout. “Just little reminders that help them be independent,” Ingaldson explains. “This is the last push before they are out on their own. They need help making the transition, but they find it very exciting.”

It took a few months to teach Nate the weight-circuit protocol. When another club member was on a piece of equipment he wanted to use, he would cross his arms and give the person a glare. “It’s all been a process, but he’s getting it,” Ingaldson says.

Sarah lives part time with her parents and the rest of the time in her own condominium. This is her second year using the club. “I love everything here except for the step aerobics,” she says as she moves from one weight machine to another, a wide smile on her face. “It’s too tricky for me because of the speed.”

Today, Anchorage has nine teachers of adapted physical education, and almost all of them hold national certification in that specialty.

Ingaldson and other adapted-physical-education staff members work hard to make sure students are not isolated from physical activities most young adults take for granted. The teacher has produced a step-aerobics and kick-boxing video for her students, and takes them cross-country skiing and hiking.

Looking back on two decades of teaching in the district, she remembers when adapted-physical-education goals were not even included in the individualized education plans for special education students.

“When I started, there was another gentleman and myself,” Ingaldson recalls. “We were the adapted-PE department.”

Today, Anchorage has nine teachers of adapted physical education, and almost all of them hold national certification in that specialty.

Sarah and Nate are finishing their workouts. Ingaldson occasionally helps them adjust a weight, but for the most part they are exercising on their own. They fill out a weight-training chart that records their progress, and head to the showers.

“Seeing the end results is the best part of my job,” Ingaldson says. “It makes everything you do worthwhile.”

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