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Reaching, teaching every child

John HartJoe Payne, a 4-year-old in Champion Mine preschool in Nevada City, drinks his juice during his lunch hour Thursday.
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This is the first of two stories about special needs children and their education in Nevada County.

Janet Adams wipes the face of her adorable 4-year-old student.



Joe Payne, Adams’ student, figures out quickly he’s suddenly the center of attention and flourishes in the spotlight, running toward visitors.

“Joey’s an outgoing little guy,” Adams said.




He leaves the little round table where he was having lunch with his classmates and takes off toward a small knot of adults at the end of his preschool classroom, past shelves with brightly-colored toys.

When Joe spied his teacher’s computer in her office, he made a beeline for the keyboard.

“He loves the computer,” Martha Payne said about her son. “I have to keep that in check in our home office.”

Since Joe, a small blond boy with enviable energy, has Down syndrome, a genetic, chromosomal disorder that causes delays in development, he goes to a special education preschool at Champion Mine Family Resource Center in Nevada City.

The Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Office runs programs in 10 classrooms throughout the county for children with moderate to severe disabilities; one each at Gold Run, Deer Creek, Seven Hills, Hennessy, Scotten and Lyman Gilmore, two classes at Union Hill School, and two preschools at Champion Mine Family Resource Center. There are special education students enrolled at most Nevada County schools; the schools listed above have special classrooms for children with disabilities.

Champion Mine, so named after a mine formerly on the site near Deer Creek School, houses the educational support services for students with moderate to severe disabilities. Students range from children confined to wheelchairs with cerebral palsy who can’t keep up in a regular classroom to children whose learning disabilities are not yet diagnosed.

The center runs programs through the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Office for children with special needs from birth until eighth grade.

Joe started in the center’s programs at birth.

“Joe was the only person enrolled before he was born,” Payne said.

In the preschool classroom next door to Joey’s, a teacher and three classroom aides get ready to serve lunch to several students. The teacher seeks to calm one boy, whose disability is not yet diagnosed.

“When children are small, it’s often hard to know what the barrier is to learning,” said Susan Craig, the special education psychologist at the center.

A classroom aide struggles to understand her student.

“I wish I could understand what he’s saying,” she said.

“Well, maybe you don’t,” another aide replied. “He has several older siblings.”

The two women share a laugh at the child-height table, while juggling small children at lunchtime. One classroom aide places a mirror in front of her student’s face because it catches his attention long enough for a mid-day meal.

In the Infant Program, teachers or instructional aides visit the homes of special needs babies and toddlers, often carting a crate of toys suited to the child’s abilities at the time, said Terry Vaughn, coordinator of the program. Six-foot-high cabinets line the walls of the Infant Program’s office, as well as the outside hallway. A dish drainer on a counter near the sink is usually full of disinfected toys, drying for another visit.

Services for special needs infants and toddlers include swimming in the center’s warm-water pool to massage, both of which increase muscle development and growth, Vaughn said.

“You pretty much know these little guys will need special help,” Vaughn said.

When he was 3 years old, Joe was enrolled in one of the center’s four preschool classes.

It wasn’t always that way for Down syndrome children.

Twenty years ago in Massachusetts, Janet Adams had charges more than students: Down syndrome teens who had been institutionalized since birth, the common practice at the time.

“They were wards of the state, remnants of a system that was going out of existence,” Adams recalled.

Today the goal for her students is to find a class that suits their abilities, which range greatly. Some of her 12 students join children in the state preschool classroom next door for part of the day. Some might attend special education classes at the county’s elementary schools or regular classrooms with an instructional aide.

Joe may be on the same campus with his 8-year-old sister, who is in a regular classroom.

“We’re fortunate to say that their future is still open,” Joe’s teacher, Janet Adams, said.

“It’s an ideal set-up for Joe,” Martha Payne said about the center.

And for parents, Payne added.

Starting at or before birth, the center “really helps in giving you information.”

“I wanted to enjoy the pregnancy and honor and celebrate his birth, so it was nice to know (that Joe had Down syndrome),” Payne said. “Becoming educated, finding out before (Joe’s birth) really helped us and smoothed the way for the rest of what was coming.”

Payne met other parents of special needs children at a parents’ group meeting.

“Each new person tells a story of why they’re there,” said Payne, who is the head of the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Parents Advisory Group. “I learned that it’s not the worst thing that could happen,” Payne said about having a child who will likely always need his family’s help.

With the center’s help, “It’s incredible that Joe has come a long way,” Payne said.

Tomorrow, the personal and emotional side of dealing with special needs children.


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