Close-Up on the Special Ed Services in School District 117

by Anna Ferraro

Mekelle Neathery, the Director of Student Services and Special Education for Jacksonville School District 117, and the other individuals on her team, have big hearts for students with special needs. Having been in this position for several years, Neathery loves the administrative role she plays in reaching out to disabled students in the community. She shares, “I’ve always been that individual that wants all students to reach their optimal success level. I’m definitely an advocate for that group of [disabled] individuals. I seek out what opportunities are out there to develop them and provide that to our teachers so that they can be the best they can be in providing those supports to our students.”

At Eisenhower Elementary School, Neathery currently oversees the support given to students, originally, K-6 grades, but now, moving into later grade levels. Beginning with Carol Hedrick, and a single classroom of special needs students, the program has grown to include two full classrooms of students that are receiving outstanding levels of special education. Every instructor has a huge heart to focus on the individual needs of each student, and provide them with the tools they need to thrive.

Neathery stated, “[Special education] is a very evolving field. You have to have that compassion and drive to [stay current]…. It’s very rewarding – when you have eyes on the impact of the program, you get goose bumps.”

At Eisenhower, Neathery and her team are trying to transition to offering their services to higher-grade levels. In addition to looking at teaching options that involve more sensory integration tools, and using additional classrooms, they are exploring more add-on therapies with the desire, as Neathery said, “to continue to evolve.”

Neathery attributes some of their huge successes over the past few years, to Jay Bollinger, Michelle Freed, and their group that coordinates “Toss for Autism” – an annual competition. 100% of profits from the event are put towards the special education program in District 117. In 2016, the fundraiser brought in over $10,000. These funds were mainly used to enhance the technology in the classrooms, affording students greater outlets for learning and communication.

The purchases of 2016 included iPads, with a “clicker communicator” app installed on them. This app allows students who have difficulty communicating in sentences to communicate by selecting pictures and chaining them together. Neathery shared the story of one student who entered the program. Unable to verbally communicate, she was given an iPad with the app. Within several months of working with the instructors in the program, and using the app to begin communicating, she can now speak in complete sentences. Neathery finished her story by saying, “To see her face light up as she is able to communicate with people…. I can’t even find words to describe it.” For all students with the same verbal challenges, Neathery and her team want to see the same amazing results, saying, “We’re trying to give them a voice.”

Neathery stated, “There’s always something you can do. You’re never done learning. And you’re never done seeking to enhance what you already have.” Neathery was careful to emphasize the amazing team of teachers, therapists, and professionally trained assistants there at Eisenhower, working with two classrooms of students with various types and levels of disabilities. She said with feeling, “It takes a team to do this…. And they’re an awesome team. You can’t really give it justice without putting eyes on what they do on a daily basis.”

In closing, Mekelle shared, “It’s been very rewarding to see the partnerships with our programs and their support. We look forward to continuing developing more partnerships as we develop into junior high and high school – ultimately, it helps our community as a whole, not just our learning community, but our society as a whole.”

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