Sturgis graduate to pilot classroom for autistic students

STURGIS (AP) – Makenzie Skovlund likes a challenge. The recent Black Hills State University graduate from Sturgis will spend a portion of her summer preparing for the first-of-its-kind classroom for students with autism in the Meade School District.

"Students with autism require a unique learning environment. They learn in different ways," Skovlund said to the Black Hills Pioneer. "I'm super excited. It will certainly be a challenge, but I'm looking forward to taking this on."

Chrissy Peterson, director of the Meade School District Special Services Department, said in the last couple of years, the number of children with autism in the district has tripled.

"They are the most unique wonderful people, but right now we have 34 identified, and not one of them is the same.

The only thing the same is their diagnosis," she said.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated 1 in 59 children in the United States today.

Some of the 34 children with autism in the district are mainstreamed into general education classes, and others are in special education resource classrooms.

"We have a handful that have been served by Black Hills Special Services because we have not been equipped to serve them properly," Peterson said. The new autism classroom, which will be located at Sturgis Elementary School, is a pilot program.

"We will start out with four beautiful kindergarten through second-grade boys. It will be based on a total visual environment," Peterson said. Skovlund has named her classroom STRIVE – Structured Teaching Reinforced In a Visual Environment.

For students with autism, the more the instructor talks, the more agitated they can become.

"Educators and moms love to talk, but for these students, the fewer words the better. We plan to use visual representations to help them get through their day," Peterson said.

Skovlund, whose mom is a special education teacher, did her student teaching with Amy Conover, a special education teacher at Sturgis Elementary School. "Working with Amy really sealed the deal that this was what I wanted to do," said Skovlund, a 2015 Sturgis Brown High School graduate.

Taking on the STRIVE classroom is Skovlund's way of advocating for students with autism.

"I want them to get the best education they deserve," she said. "My goal for them is to provide the tools they need to eventually become more a part of their general education classroom and be an active member with their peers." Students with autism thrive on routine and structure, Skovlund said. She hopes to provide that in her classroom.

"When you're in the classroom every day, you realize there is so much that impacts student learning," she said. "The biggest thing I realized is that it doesn't always matter what's in your lesson plan. If the child is having a bad day, they just need their teacher to be there for them, to give them a hug, and to encourage them."


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