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Students thrive thanks to caring mentors

Service learning student Dylan Reis assists students Jake Rhinesmith and Alex Contreras in the adaptive band class of Mark Berntson.1 / 2
Jon Snead and Suellyn Hoffart do a rhythm exercise in adaptive band.2 / 2

It's all about choices for the six special needs students Suellyn Hoffart dotes on daily in her West Fargo High School class room.

In her 18th year of teaching at the school, she feels so connected to the program that right now it is one of the most important elements in her life, second only to her attachment with her own family.

Starting her career in Rugby, Hoffart has been involved in the special education field for 35 years - all of those in the special ed area - with the exception of one year spent in a regular kindergarten classroom.

"I'm a service type person," Hoffart said. "I've been a nurse's aid and school teacher. I really like to help people, so I worked toward my double major in Elementary Education and Special Education in the mentally handicapped area. The fluke was I never got an elementary job but went into special ed and I couldn't be happier. I get a really good feeling being a mentor and helping others."

Her passion for what she does is easy to read and undeniably visible as she interacts with her 'classroom kids' consisting of five males, and one female ranging in ages from 16 to 20, with her genuine caring, brightly shining through.

"I love children," she said. "I'm an empty nester and hating it. I have three grown children of my own and a lovely granddaughter I can't get enough of. I just like mothering."

Sharing similar sentiments and partnering with Hoffart in the daily scheme of things are three extremely dedicated paraprofessionals, who Hoffart said she would be lost without.

"My paraprofessionals do such a wonderful job you would think they had their master's degree," Hoffart added. "They are truly teachers." Lisa Alves has been with her ten years, Diane Huso, six years, and Laurie Carthrew, four years.

"With every hour of the day they are my left and right hands. They give every little thing a thought and are very highly scheduled no matter what they do in the classroom," Hoffart said proudly. "They just do amazing things that many of us would not like to do, and always cheerfully and with respect and consideration for the student's needs and personal well-being. Whether it's helping to feed them at lunchtime or other personal care issues, they truly do care that much about the feelings of the students."

The aim of the special education classroom setting is focused on teaching the students functional life skills, with the goal of being able to live as independently as possible. All the students must attend school until they reach the age of 21.

Half of Hoffart's class is nonverbal, so that poses some additional problems. This is where the choice concept fits snugly into the picture, by giving all the students a say as to what they would like to happen next as it affects them.

A typical school day runs from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., beginning with a hands-on sanding and staining wood project, followed by speech, and the students, who are able to, traveling to the Dairy Queen where they perform job duties. The morning concludes with a current events session of sorts talking about happenings in their own lives, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Lunch breaks up the day, followed by grooming skills, and leisurely free time spent socializing, i.e. a movie, card game, or whatever the choice.

Students also participate intermittently in adaptive classes that reinforce life skills, including sessions with phy ed coach Chris Kalsow, where they are involved in several fun motor skills activities, soccer, etc.; and in music instructor Mark Berntson's class, where once a week for 30 minutes they are able to interact by taking their turns playing a variety of musical instruments - much to their delight and enjoyment.

"To see them work through all these areas is wonderful," Hoffart beamed. "It's a lot about making choices, whether it's music, movies, mealtime, or other activities. Anything they can do to help make a choice gives them the chance to express themselves. It's a sharing process for them and a way to be more social and have more confidence and power in their actions and social skill areas."

The 'choice' process seems to fit in exceptionally well over the lunch hour, Hoffart added, "because by allowing the students to make their own lunch choices, their behavior is better."

Providing additional classroom assistance are members of the service learning class who receive extra credit for working with a classroom teacher. "We have a very high number who participate, last year we had 15," Hoffart said. "And once they've earned their credit, they still just like to stop by and hang out and help wherever they can. We had a big bowling party after getting paid for a job at the hockey arena. We took the service learning kids and 15 special needs students and staff and had a great time at West Acres bowl, where they have handicapped accessible lanes and great pizza. These service learning kids are all just wonderful, and it is truly amazing what these young people can accomplish through their interaction with these special kids."

In retrospect, Hoffart said she couldn't have steered her career path in a more satisfying and fulfilling direction.

"Sometimes they might say I am too close to my students. I've had six students pass away and that is very hard to get over. I've been involved in prayer chains and close interpersonal relationships. I even had one student tell me 'you're not my mother, Hoffart. I told him 'I spend more time with you during the day than your mother, so then I guess I'm your other mother," she said with a proud grin.

Hoffart admits that the role can become difficult at times because of the mounds of paperwork involved but she doesn't mind. "It's all about the students - they all mean a lot to me. I get payback too, because I get to feel good."

She also commends the parents for their love and guidance, saying she has a fantastic group to work with and relate to. "They tell me I'm wonderful, but I have to look at these parents and stepparents and say, I've been blessed. We have really great relationships with all the parents."

Like any blended family, it's all about cooperation and teamwork.

Hoffart wouldn't have it any other way.