Students progress despite their impairments at Pine Grove Learning Center

Luis Hernandez learns the tablet from teacher Robbie Becksfort

Special education teacher Robbie Becksfort gives Enzo Costellanos-Morales a warm hug after he shows visitors how he is learning to use a computer tablet that displays restaurant menu items. It will help the non-verbal student tell his parents and friends what he wants to eat when they go out for lunch or dinner.

Justin Manry works out on the treadmill with teacher Robbie Becksfort at his side

“We’ve got eight years to teach him,” says Becksfort matter-of-factly. Eighteen-year-old Enzo will stay with Beckfort’s class of students who are severely cognitively impaired until he is 26 years old, the legal limit for special education students.

Enzo, a cheerful young man whose vocal expressions are limited to occasional squeals and grunts, is one of  11 severely cognitively impaired students ranging from 18 to 26 in Becksfort’s classroom. Her students vary widely in their abilities and impairments. Some are on a 200-day-a-year schedule to prevent them from sliding back during the summer months.

Becksfort, a 30-year employee with Grand Rapids Public Schools, joined the faculty at Pine Grove six years ago after previous teaching stints in K-12 classrooms. Unlike the new students she saw every year in the traditional setting, Becksfort says she enjoys the ongoing relationships that form with her special needs students.

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Child care worker Steven Lee enjoys a hug from Landon Hoskinson

Achievement is Celebrated

Achievement and progress are celebrated by giving the students jobs that contribute to their self-esteem. Jobs done well are rewarded with hugs and high-fives. “There’s a lot of affection that goes on in this classroom,” says Becksfort as Enzo offers her a big morning embrace.

Justin Manry, a visually-impaired student in his 20s, memorizes and announces the daily news and weather updates over the school’s intercom system.

After being briefed once by Becksfort, Justin proudly announces today is National School Librarian Day, the results of last night’s Tigers and Whitecaps games and the day’s lunch menu. After the announcements, he goes to a treadmill, where he works out at a pre-set pace to smooth his gait.

Justin Manry, a visually-impaired student in his 20s, memorizes and announces the daily news and weather updates and the breakfast and lunch menu over the school’s intercom system

Rayana Feliciano, a diminutive young woman in her 20s, stops by each classroom with a bright smile to get the day’s count for breakfast and lunch.

After their arrival by bus or parent, the students quietly perform object-sorting exercises meant to teach fine motor skills as Becksfort and her assistants help them settle in for the day.  She is assisted by two instructional support specialists and a paraprofessional.

Some students sit cross-legged on the floor or play with simple objects. One student has an animated conversation with a Christmas globe Becksfort gave her the day before. Bathroom breaks usually require assistance from specialists Kieu Huyn and Steven Lee.

Speech pathologist Anne Aurand enjoys some time with Rayana Feliciano

Art Projects Lead to Restaurant Outings

Becksfort also has her students create gardening and craft projects. For example, they make trivets and Christmas tree ornaments from boxes of used wine corks the resourceful teacher gets from a friend who works at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

The proceeds from the sale of their gardening and craft projects are used on monthly restaurant outings, where the students are helped with the process of ordering lunch. Computer pads loaded with menu options from popular restaurants such as McDonald’s or Subway are used to help the non-verbal students choose their meals.

Those real-world outings are important for her students as they near their final years of education and step out into the world, says Becksfort. “There has to be motivation. I can teach you, but I can’t motivate you.”

Like most of her fellow teachers, Becksfort is planning to stay at Pine Grove Learning Center after its operations are shifted from Grand Rapids Public Schools to Kent ISD this summer. After 30 years as a GRPS employee, she will become a Kent ISD staff member.

Becksfort and most of her colleagues say they welcome the change because it will increase the stability of the environment their students need to grow and learn.  After all, she has only eight years left before Enzo is out of school.

James Harger
James Harger reported on West Michigan's economy, courts and politics for The Grand Rapids Press and Mlive.com for more than 37 years. He also is employed as Servanthood Leader at Immanuel Lutheran Church in downtown Grand Rapids. A graduate of Central Michigan University, he also has worked for publications in Holland, Mount Pleasant and Lansing. He is married to Lisa and has one daughter, who lives in Ann Arbor. Read James' full bio or email James.

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