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Mid-Valley Special Education Cooperative serves students whom school districts can’t

Fifth-grader Noah Uher paints part of a mural on the wall at the Mades-Johnstone Center in St. Charles.
Fifth-grader Noah Uher paints part of a mural on the wall at the Mades-Johnstone Center in St. Charles.

ST. CHARLES – Tamara Srdanovich received frustrating news in December from her son’s teacher at Corron Elementary School in South Elgin: the St. Charles School District 303 educator didn’t know how to teach the boy, who has Asperger’s syndrome and anxiety.

Within weeks, Srdanovich toured the Mades-Johnstone Center in St. Charles and found the right school for Benjamin.

“I was so happy when I met [his teacher] Meg Bingham,” Srdanovich said. “I knew right away she got it.”

Located on Ronzheimer Avenue, the Mades-Johnstone Center is like any other school except that its environment is tailored to K-12 students with emotional and behavioral disabilities.

It is part of the Mid-Valley Special Education Cooperative, which was formed about 50 years ago to serve students with special needs from participating school districts. Today, members of the cooperative are Batavia School District 101, Central District 301, Kaneland School District 302, St. Charles School District 303 and Geneva School District 304.

The districts pay Mid-Valley tuition for the students enrolled in the co-op, Executive Director Carla Cumblad said.

As of Jan. 1, 208 students were enrolled in Mid-Valley programs, which also are housed in the Shelby Building in St. Charles and in schools throughout the member districts. The co-op also provides other services, including occupational and physical therapy, to nearly 920 students.

Although Mid-Valley’s configuration has changed over the years, Cumblad said its mission has remained to serve children with disabilities and be advocates for them and their families.

Member districts don’t send all their students with special needs to Mid-Valley – just those whose needs cannot be met with their resources.

“We’re not able to support all students,” said John Knewitz, a District 303 administrator who serves as a Mid-Valley liaison.

“[Mid-Valley] provides more structured environments for students who need them with various disability types.”

Because Mid-Valley serves children with a range of disabilities – including autism, hearing loss, cognitive disabilities and significant physical disabilities – it’s difficult to describe the nature of its programs. Some classes have a few students who need one-on-one attention, few distractions and special equipment, while others follow curriculum similar to those at regular schools. One middle school class, for example, is reading the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy, “Catching Fire.”

“It runs a huge gamut,” Cumblad said.

Carol Pasker’s third-grade son has attended Mades-Johnstone since kindergarten. Pasker, of Carol Stream, said Andrew was OK in preschool, but he didn’t have the coping skills for a larger classroom setting. They were lucky to learn of the Mid-Valley school, she said, noting it not only accepted kindergartners but also had a quiet space where he could regroup.

She commended the teachers for being warm and friendly and not holding bad moments against the students. Her son knows he can count on everyone’s support and care, even when he gets mad at himself for losing control, she said.

“It’s a safe haven,” Pasker said. “It’s a place where he knows he can be himself, and it helps with the anxiety.”

Pasker hopes one day Andrew can return to Benjamin School District 25. Mid-Valley personnel and member districts share the goal of students returning to their home districts.

“Every time we out-place a student, that is always our hope,” said Fran Eggleston, Kaneland’s Mid-Valley liaison.

Students returning to their home districts may do so gradually, Eggleston said. For example, they might return for half a day or a few classes and eventually would stop getting support from Mid-Valley programs.

For students ages 18 to 22, Mid-Valley is teaching them skills they will need for independent living, including housekeeping, shopping, personal finance and cooking. These students are based at the Shelby Building along Fifth Street in St. Charles but also travel to Elgin Community College, Waubonsee Community College, work sites and volunteer sites.

Last week, Haley Morris, Amanda Mate, Gloria Fisher and Brianna Aylesworth of the S.A.I.L. – Students Attaining Independent Living – program were eating a snack together. Morris, 21, is preparing for life after Mid-Valley.

“We have to move on,” she said of ending her time with Mid-Valley. “I want to have a paid job with little kids.”

Her mother, Chris Morris, said her daughter has participated in Mid-Valley since the family moved to Geneva in 2007, and she has another daughter in the Mid-Valley program, as well.

Haley Morris has learned to self-advocate and is more responsible regarding money management, daily schedules and packing a lunch, her mother said.

“Haley has really matured and become more independent,” Chris Morris said. “She’s able to do more things with less direction from me.”

Knewitz said school districts always are looking at what they can do for special-education students within their schools. It is difficult to say whether there always will be a need for Mid-Valley, he said.

“Always is a long time,” he said. “For the foreseeable future, I’d say yes.”

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