When Velma Luke met Abi Kurtz five years ago, she didn’t know what she was in for.
To start, as a paraeducator at Whitefish High School, Luke had never worked directly with a student with Down syndrome. She also wasn’t aware of the impact Kurtz would have on her.
“I’d never worked with a student with Down syndrome before,” Luke said. “Abi’s mom loaned me books and I read them cover to cover and learned more about what it is and thought, ‘OK, I can do this.’ And it ended up being the best thing I ever did, to work with my Abi.”
Luke was recently awarded the Logan Charles Award by the Montana Down Syndrome Association, having been nominated by Kurtz and her mother, Mamie Flinn.
The Logan Charles Award honors special education teachers and paraprofessionals who enrich the lives of children who live with Down syndrome. Luke received the award during the Missoula Buddy Walk in September.
“Velma’s work is a powerful example of how inclusive education can serve all those who are engaged in it,” says Christian Bitterauf, student services teacher at Whitefish High School. “The creativity of Velma’s work to accommodate student learning to include meaningful and relevant skills for the students she serves is exemplary.”
Luke has worked in the district as a paraeducator for the last 20 years and is now in her sixth year at Whitefish High School.
While she says education has always been her calling — having been inspired by social studies teacher Mary Hillstrom as a Whitefish student herself — Luke took a different path when it came time to choose her studies in college. Hoping to help protect Montana’s farm and wild lands, she pursued land use planning and worked in the field for a number of years until her children were born.
Once her own children were in elementary school, however, she reflected on her regret for not pursuing teaching, and an opening in the district helped her fulfill that calling.
As paraeducator, Luke spent the last five years primarily working with Kurtz, focusing her studies on real-life applications that would help her after graduation. Kurtz graduated with the Class of 2018.
“I kind of took the general education stuff and narrowed it down to something of life-skill interest for Abi — cooking, art, we did a lot of shopping, party planning — so it was a lot of fun,” she said.
For Luke, seeing things click inside a student’s head is her favorite moment.
And in the case of Kurtz, seeing her student develop as a person over the years was fulfilling, she said.
“That’s the best part, that light bulb moment when the kid will go, ‘Oh, I get it! I understand that.’ Abi had a lot of light bulb moments when we were here, her understanding and her interaction with others really grew. When she first came here, she never even lifted her head and never made eye contact and didn’t want to talk to anybody,” she said. “By the time we were done she was walking around this high school with her chin up, proud and confident and everyone would say hello to her. It was really great to be part of her ride.”
Luke also says the district has always done a great job of keeping the paraeducators and their students included.
Whether it was teachers allotting class time for Kurtz to show off her work — paintings, course work and even foods she made — or administrators being ready to offer help when needed, Luke says she’s constantly impressed by the support she receives.
“People really go out of their way and do a lot for our student services kids. They’re very supportive and they’re willing to adapt and modify assignments to help our kids,” she said. “We’re not forgotten or shoved in a corner, we’re very much included, the paras and the students.”
The award is also a chance to recognize the work she and her colleagues have dedicated themselves to, she says.
“Paras, we often don’t get a lot of attention, which is fine. We spend time with the kids on a daily basis, getting them through various classes, various requirements for different things and we kind of just do our work quietly and be that support system that sometimes the kids don’t even realize they’re getting. We’re just part of the team, so it feels kind of nice to have some para recognition,” she said.
Kurtz graduated from WHS earlier this year, and Luke still gets misty-eyed talking about the impact of their time spent together.
There were challenges, she says, but seeing Kurtz grow was worth it all.
“There was a lot of extra work on my part, but it played out so beautifully for Abi. She’s the kind of student that you wanted to do more for, because she was always wanting to learn and do more and eager to try anything,” she said. “Being a para takes a lot of out of you — you give and give and give. That’s part of the job, that’s what it is. But Abi gave back, all the time.”