Like any 17-year-old girl, Carmen Atherton was thrilled to be crowned homecoming queen at her school this year. But Carmen isn’t like most teenage girls and neither is her school, Schramm Educational Center on Cedar Street in Pekin.
Carmen, was born with Schizencephaly, a very rare neurological birth defect that causes epilepsy and paralysis, and her mother, Erica, moved to Tazewell County solely to enroll her daughter at SEC.
“I tried for the longest time to find a way to enroll her there, but there really was no way to get her in out-of-district,” Atherton said. “Finally, about five years ago, I moved into the district, and it’s been one of the best things I could have ever done for her.”
SEC offers individualized instruction to students with significant disabilities Tazewell and Mason counties. The school accepts students between the ages of 3-21 and offers a modified curriculum that is delivered at specialized learning centers.
“We are a public day school and we serve about 74 students with multiple disabilities,” SEC Program Coordinator Kristina Lazarz said. “We serve early childhood until they graduate or until their 22nd birthdays.”
The Tazewell-Mason Counties Special Education Association (TMCSEA) was formed during the 1966-67 school year and became operational in July 1968 and the school year commenced in August of that year.
Lazarz said the program involved many students with disabilities such as Down Syndrome that are much easier not to integrate in traditional public schools. Because of this, SEC has since shifted its focus to the highly non-verbal student, and those with serious physical disabilities.
“Most of our students are non-verbal and they vary widely in their skills,” she said. “We really work on their communication systems through communication devices like iPads with communication apps.”
The iPads are among many assistive technology devices the school employs to help students succeed. AT devices can be as simple as a foam cradle that helps a child hold a pencil to technology that converts a teacher’s spoken words to text on a screen.
Essentially, an AT device is any item, piece of equipment or product system that is used to improve the capabilities of a child with a disability. The Illinois Assistive Technology Program works with the state’s Individualized Education Program to continuously provide AT to students with disabilities.
SEC also staffs vision and hearing teachers, a speech therapist and a physical therapist. The school also offers vocational opportunities to its students, community-based instruction and education and there’s a warm water pool for therapy.
“Programs like ours are population-based. We have students from Havana or Midwest Central in Manito where they might only have one or two students with severe disabilities,” Lazarz said. “A program like ours would be very hard to have in their district with so few students who need it.”
SEC operates from a three-tier system of individualized, targeted and universal supports. Individual supports include functional behavior assessments and plans, parent collaboration and training and behavior team approaches.
At the targeted level, staff conduct individualized programming reviews, classroom environment adaptations, student-specific strategies and targeted skill interventions. Universal supports focus on school-wide positive behavior procedures, structured routines and positive reinforcement strategies.
Universal supports also provide an inclusive, anti-bullying atmosphere for all of the students, something that Atherton said she finds as valuable as Carmen’s education at SEC.
“Just because her little body doesn’t cooperate with her, Carmen’s just like any other teenager. She’s a smart girl,” Atherton said. “She’s loves to wear pretty clothes and she just loved her night as homecoming queen.”
Along with homecoming, SEC also hosts activities during Halloween, Christmas and other holidays that promote families to participate with their children. At year’s end, they also host graduation exercises, and student volunteers from district high schools volunteer to participate and help.
To learn more about SEC, visit the school’s Facebook page, “Schramm Educational Center” or visit their website at http://www.tmcsea.org/.