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Elementary school teacher happy with 'change of direction'

April 01, 2002|BY TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

Editor's Note: The Herald-Mail is featuring one elementary school teacher each month through June. The nine-part series highlights excellent educators on the first Monday of each month. Coming in May: Smithsburg Elementary School.

Like many people, Kathryn Sortore didn't become what she aspired to be as a teenager.

"When I was in high school, I thought I was going to be some kind of foreign language translator," she said.

But after a few years of studying languages at Buffalo State College in New York, Sortore decided the field wasn't for her. Instead, she began taking elementary education classes because her friends were doing it. She received a master's degree in learning and behavioral disorders.

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Now, as a special education teacher at Sharpsburg Elementary School, Sortore, 34, said she's happy with her change of direction.

"I love my job," she said.

Despite occasional kicks and punches from students acting out, piles of paperwork detailing the specific needs of her special education students and constant phone calls to physicians and other health professionals, Sortore said the reward of teaching is enough to keep her enthusiasm for the job.

"It's very challenging, but it's exciting," she said. "Seeing them become independent - that's the best part of it."

Sortore said the school's approximately 40 special education students have a variety of difficulties, including behavioral disorders, emotional disturbances and mild to severe learning disabilities.

The students are placed in regular classrooms, but Sortore works with students in second, third and fifth grades in subjects including language arts and math.

Once a parent or teacher refers a student to the special education program, Sortore said meetings are set up by specialists to discuss the child's strengths and weaknesses. The student is tested in the appropriate areas, observed in the classroom, and then an evaluation meeting is held based on scores and the observation.

Sortore said paperwork and phone calls to doctors often keep her at work until 5 or 6 p.m.

When students are placed in the program, they are retested after three years. If a student progresses enough, he or she may be dismissed from the special education program. She said one of her fifth-grade students was released from the program this school year.

"It was great. He went from kicking and biting me his first year to reading on grade level by fifth grade," Sortore said.

Not all students have the same kind of success, she said. Some continue to have difficulties throughout their educational career.

"You can see that they're struggling and that they get frustrated and upset," Sortore said. "Sometimes they just don't know how to cope with all the pressures from school. Sometimes you just don't know what to do to help."

Some students may be referred to behavioral health services or social services for added support.

She often worries when special education students who are not ready are promoted to middle school, she said.

"I do worry about them. I definitely worry about middle school for them," she said. "Some kids are ready for it and some kids are immature."

She thinks some students would benefit from remaining in special education classes the entire school day, rather than sharing time in a regular classroom.

"Inclusion isn't for everybody," she said. "It seems like there needs to be more options. I'd like to see more programs for students who are having severe difficulty being successful in the classroom."

Sortore grew up in Angelica, N.Y., which is about an hour south of Buffalo. She graduated from Angelica Central School, which housed grades kindergarten through 12, in a class with 17 students.

She spent 10 years in Buffalo after high school and taught part time for several health organizations before being hired by Washington County Public Schools. She has taught at Sharpsburg Elementary for six years.

Eventually, Sortore said she would like to go back to school to learn more about emotional disabilities and possibly work as a liaison between a children's hospital and a school.

She said her success at Sharpsburg Elementary so far is partly due to the support she receives from other teachers and the community.

"We have a lot of supportive parents," she said. "This community here is amazing. They're strong, caring and they do a lot for the school."

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