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‘She never says no’: Passion drives Longfellow special ed teacher to 55-year career helping kids

UPDATED: Tue., June 29, 2021

Special education teacher Joy Chastek, age 78, has been in education for 55 years, most of them at Longfellow Elementary in northeast Spokane.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Special education teacher Joy Chastek, age 78, has been in education for 55 years, most of them at Longfellow Elementary in northeast Spokane. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Joy Chastek is 78 years old and still works up to 15 hours a day.

An educator for 55 years, Chastek has devoted the last 40 to the special education students at Longfellow Elementary School in northeast Spokane.

Chastek wouldn’t be anywhere else, or doing anything else other than helping some of Spokane’s most vulnerable students, sharing their triumphs, their challenges and even their tears.

Chastek struggled to stifle those tears recently during the final week of school.

It’s been a tough year. Everyone suffered during the pandemic, especially low-income kids and the thousands of special education students in Spokane County.

Chastek serves both at Longfellow, a Title 1 school in a low-income neighborhood in northeast Spokane where the ragged retreat to distance learning last spring was all the more painful.

Chastek was staggered. Special education puts a premium on face-to-face interaction – even for Chastek’s students, who are pulled out of general education for aid in a subject or two.

Chastek remembers the day, March 16, 2020, when students were sent home with papers, well wishes and hopes to meet again.

“ ‘You mean I’m not coming back in here?’ ” she asked Principal Adam Oakley.

However, Special Education Director Becky Ramsey and her team at Spokane Public Schools moved swiftly, sending materials and ideas on how to handle the crisis.

“Everybody worked together and everyone gave one another a lot of grace to do the job we had to do to make a difference,” Chastek said.

Meanwhile, the children were left to their own devices, if they had any.

“Some of these families, they were struggling so much,” Chastek said. “This was all new to them, and some of them didn’t have laptops or internet.”

Chastek followed up with phone calls, setting up appointments through Google Voice for families to pick up Chromebooks and pointing them toward Wi-Fi hot spots in school parking lots.

Inevitably there were more tears – from parents who didn’t know how to log into the district portal. Chastek helped with that as well.

“She’s got such a rare passion and heart for kids,” Oakley said. “She never says no.”

Chastek also doesn’t allow her students and families to give up. When the school year began with distance learning only, she encouraged families to bring in students for limited in-person instruction.

Face-to-face time also benefited parents and guardians.

“These families have a lot of sorrow, but these children are so precious,” Chastek said. “Some of them don’t want to go home, where sometimes there is no food, shelter or clothing.”

“I think that our responsibility is to contribute to the well-being of the child and the family,” Chastek said. “Together we can set the stage for their learning through a calm, inviting, enticing environment.”

Chastek began building those relationships in her hometown of Walla Walla. Graduating from Walla Walla University, she went on to join the special ed team at Eastern Washington as an adjunct faculty member.

In that role, Chastek toured the country and established a national reputation. Meanwhile, in 1975 the United States passed Public Law, 94-142, which guaranteed a free appropriate public education to each child with a disability.

This law had a dramatic, positive impact on millions of children with disabilities in every state and each local community across the country.

“The whole nation was paying attention to the needs of special ed students,” Chastek said.

By then, Chastek’s attention was divided: She had five children of her own.

“But I wanted to make a difference for kids,” she said.

She began with Spokane Public Schools as a specialist, working out of the basement at Lewis and Clark High School before moving in 1980 to the new district offices at Main Avenue and Bernard Street.

That lasted only one year before Chastek was drawn to the classroom at Longfellow, where she’s been ever since.

She works alongside Meritt Miller, a first-year teacher who handles grades 4 through 6. Chastek teaches the younger students.

Miller marvels at the scene. “She taught the parents of some of my students,” Miller said.

“And she’s given me so much help,” Miller added.

Through the years, Chastek has handled large and small issues with ease.

“She’s great at de-escalating kids who are having a tough day,” Oakley said.

“But she’s also told me she didn’t want our kids to know that they live in a poor neighborhood,” Oakley said.

For example, Chastek would spruce up the plants at the school entrance.

“All the little things that make a big difference,” Oakley said.

Then she goes home and deals with paperwork, which is always more intense for students with Individualized Educational Plans.

“It’s been harder this year,” said Chastek, who sometimes worked until 11 p.m. and on weekends. “Sometimes my husband asks, ‘You’re still working?”

Chastek shrugs. “There was just so much to do,” she said.

“Sometimes it was just overwhelming, but we did a really good job this year, thanks to our admins and the district,” she said.

As students were entering the classroom, there was time for one more question: Are you coming back next year?

“Of course,” Chastek said.

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