In Michelle Schimmels’ alternative instruction classroom at McDonald Elementary School, students arrive for breakfast. If they want juice, they point to a series of pictures that let Schimmels know what they want. When they finish, they take turns brushing their teeth before sitting down to talk about the date on the calendar and sing some songs.
Schimmels’ class is unique at McDonald. It is one of two that serve high-needs, special education students, most of whom are on the autism spectrum. For her work with the students, she received a Meritorious Service Award from the Central Valley School District last week.
“She has a way of understanding these children,” said Traci Brown, one of four para-educators in the classroom, and one of the seven people who nominated Schimmels for the award.
Schimmels said many of the students who come to her are nonverbal, and she uses the pictures to help them communicate with her.
There are nine students in the class from kindergarten into the fifth grade. They work on life skills such as brushing their hair and teeth, folding clothing, tying their shoes and zipping up their coats. They also work on music, math and reading.
The classroom is highly structured and revolves around a regular routine, which helps the students. Several people who wrote to the district to nominate Schimmels said her students can suffer from sensory overload and get frustrated, but know that disrupting the classroom and acting out is not allowed.
“The student learns it is OK to get upset, but it is not OK to hit, kick, bite, throw things or scream at her or the staff in the room,” wrote Brown and another para-educator, James Haynes. They added she never sends the children home for bad behavior.
Schimmels, 38, said she first went to Gonzaga University interested in becoming a lawyer. She studied political science before she realized it wasn’t what she wanted to do during her last year of the program. She received her degree in general education instead.
After a few years of staying home with her three children, she went to Whitworth to get her master’s degree in special education. She said she grew up with a brother who had special needs and the idea of helping those students appealed to her.
“I just love working with kids,” she said.