Three Johnson County special education teachers are being recognized for their work with students with special needs.
Alyson Lewis of Pioneer Trail Middle School in Olathe, Lisa Farnsworth of Overland Trail Middle School in the Blue Valley School District and Vicki Asher from Horizon Academy in Roeland Park are the recipients of the 2014 Special Educator of the Year award.
The award was handed out to only five Kansas teachers during a luncheon last month in Topeka by the Kansas Federation of the Council for Exceptional Children. The mission of the Kansas CEC is to advance the education and welfare of exceptional children and youth. The Kansas CEC is part of the national Council for Exceptional Children.
For the last four years, Lewis has been a center-based resource teacher at Pioneer Trail Middle School and teaches students who have significant developmental delays resulting from genetic disorders such as Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, autism spectrum disorder and cerebral palsy. Lewis said her love of children with disabilities was something that was instilled in her as a very young child.
“It’s something I’ve always been passionate about,” Lewis said. “These kids have some of the hardest lives and are faced with such challenges and they are not even fazed by it. To them, they are just enjoying life. And to be surrounded by that every day is a joy and it far triumphs everything else.”
Lewis was nominated for the award by the assistant principal at her school.
Each teacher nominated for the Special Educator of the Year award was required to have one letter of recommendation from a colleague and one testimonial letter from a parent of a student they have helped. That’s a request that Pioneer Trail Middle School parent Erika Nesbitt was happy to comply with for Lewis.
Nesbitt’s eighth-grade son, Elijah, who has a form of muscular dystrophy, is in Lewis’ class at Pioneer Trail. She said that Lewis goes out of her way every day to look after not only Elijah’s academic needs, but tracks physical changes in him so that she can discuss them with her doctor.
“She is a really good support person,” Nesbitt said. “She keeps me abreast of changes that may be happening at school. When he is having a hard day, she is always there for support.”
Nesbitt said that Lewis has become like a member of her family. Lewis even took it upon herself to write a grant proposal to a charity that resulted in the Nesbitt family receiving a wheelchair-accessible van for Elijah.
“It takes a village to raise a child and it’s just really a blessing to have her help with that,” Nesbitt said.
Lisa Farnsworth of Blue Valley’s Overland Trail Middle School received her award for her work as a navigator teacher at her school, where she works with students with autism spectrum disorder.
Farnsworth likens her role at the school to that of a coach, helping to navigate her students through anxiety and teaching them problem solving and social skills that may be holding them back in the classroom.
Farnsworth said while she’s flattered to win the award because it’s recognition of her hard work, she knows that it takes many people to help make her students successful.
“I’m a strong believer in collaboration with the family, school team and specialists,” Farnsworth said. “I just learn so much from these kids that they really inspire me to learn more. I think these kids have so much potential and it’s about how to help them reach their potential.”
Vicki Asher of Horizon Academy, a private school in Roeland Park serving students with language-based learning disabilities in first through 12th grades, agrees with Farnsworth about the importance of helping students with learning disabilities find their success in the classroom. Although the assistant principal and teacher at the school of 69 students was flattered to be nominated for the award by her executive director, she knows the most important focus is on her students.
“So many kids have lost their self-esteem and as a result it impacts the whole family,” Asher said. “We bring hope back. We provide them with tools that make them successful so that they can regain their sense of self and find their strengths.”