PLANT CITY — Sandra Denham caught the bug in high school. A friend was working on a school project to help a child who had a brain injury. "It just fascinated me," she said.
Through college and marriage, motherhood and divorce, she never looked back.
An exceptional student education teacher at Plant City High School, the 59-year-old Denham inhabits a world that lately occupies center stage in the Hillsborough school system.
It's a world of walkers and wheelchairs, high-fives and hugs. Goals are sometimes very modest. Do five nickels make a quarter? Can the student prepare a meal? Will he enter adulthood with acceptance and a sense of purpose?
The work is messy, stressful, heartbreaking. The payoff: "My students want to be here," said Denham. "They want to learn."
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In a week when the School Board deliberated about accountability and the district's ESE chief quietly stepped aside, Denham allowed a reporter to watch her in action in Room N16.
The room was typically cluttered with posters, a holiday tree, a bell schedule and teaching materials spilling from shelves.
About 25 students were around tables with an aide at almost each one. Three kids were in wheelchairs. One wore headphones and worked an electronic tablet. Some did not speak at all.
The group was especially large, Denham said, as her co-teacher next door was having kids in smaller groups bake cookies.
An aide led the large group through a math lesson that involved coins.
What is the one coin that we can use to make 25 cents?
The number of disabilities in an ESE classroom — exceptionalities, they are called — can seem as vast as the district's special-needs population, now 29,000. What's easy for one student can be impossible for another.
Each gets an individualized education program with goals that can involve anything from writing your name to reading for comprehension.
During the math lesson, a student whose skills were more advanced did problems on the board with another aide.
Between instruction, the staff saw to health needs. Some students needed medication — cellphone alarms are invaluable —or had to be helped out of chairs and onto mats of various sizes.
When it was time for some to go to physical education, the others stayed behind for economics.
One student knew Cuba had a controlled economy. He could define capitalism. He knew what it meant to barter.
Others had to relearn the concepts.
"Do you guys ever trade with your friends?" Denham asked. "What do you trade for?" What would they give her for her glasses, a pencil or an eraser, she asked. "What if I trade you my cellphone?"
Nearly all were focused on the lesson, and the atmosphere was always warm and upbeat.
"You can come in dog-tired and looking like something the cat dragged in," Denham said. "And they will say, 'Miss Denham, you look so pretty today.' "
She doesn't pretend the system is perfect, or that parents who complain don't have valid reasons.
The bureaucracy is intimidating, she acknowledged. With limited funds, it's hard to get therapy unless it is educationally relevant. Aides are paid little and, according to a school district report, get inconsistent levels of training.
Denham is picky about her aides.
"I'd rather do without than just have anybody," she said. "I want the right fit for this classroom."
She's seen parents grow bitter after battling for services.
"I tell myself that I deal with this situation a finite period of time," she said. "People think I'm crazy because I give my parents my cellphone number. But I've never had a parent abuse it."
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The district's ESE program has been under intense scrutiny since the news that students Isabella Herrera and Jennifer Caballero died, one following a medical incident on a school bus and the other in a pond behind her middle school.
Denham feels somewhat distant from the controversy since she works in Plant City. It helps that she feels appreciated by her principal and school. She welcomes the ongoing reforms.
"It's really worthwhile to take a close look at what we're doing and how we're doing it," she said. "Anytime a tragedy happens, you have to look at what happened, and everyone can benefit from that introspection."
In nearly 33 years on the job, she's seen the push for more inclusion, commonly known as mainstreaming. And she's seen higher demands placed on mainstream teachers, which sometimes work against inclusion.
So she puts a lot of effort into after-school activities such as the Special Olympics and the Raider Buddies to integrate special-needs students with the rest of the campus.
It makes a difference in attitudes, she said. In 15 years here, she can think of maybe five kids who made insensitive remarks.
"I ask them, 'What if this were your sister or brother?' " she said. Or something more colorful. They soon get the message.
Principal Colleen Richardson said the degree of tolerance is one of the things she loves about Plant City High, a school ESE families sometimes seek out.
Paradoxically, the school is not rewarded for that reputation. So-called special diplomas count against the graduation rate. Plant City awarded 27 last year, among the most in the district.
"I've just got to ramp up the general ed population," Richardson said. "Every single senior is critical to me."
Denham has a few more years before retirement. After that she might work for her son, who runs a day program for adults with disabilities.
That's a big issue of hers. After high school, she said, there are not nearly enough good programs. And there is a long wait for the Medicaid waivers needed to avoid institutional care.
"I think we are doing the best job we can," she said. "But I still don't think it's enough."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]