Kaleigha Matteson buzzes through the crowded Truman Middle School hallway quickly in her hot pink and black wheelchair. She calls out to friends, shoring up plans for after school.
In her technology design and engineering class, Kaleigha focuses intently on the assignment: using her laptop to create a 3-D design and animation of a house, culminating in a virtual tour.
Kaleigha’s virtual house is already well appointed, so she’s putting on the final touches. Because she can’t use her hands, she expertly directs the mouse with her chin to navigate through the rooms. At Kaleigha’s quick direction, her paraeducator Mary Dycus uses the keyboard to type in key details. The two have a shorthand with each other, quickly knowing what help Kaleigha needs and how Dycus will deliver.
Kaleigha has arthrogryposis, which limits range of motion in the joints and can affect muscle strength. For Kaleigha, that means she can’t raise her arms, grip her hands or bear weight on her feet. It also means she needs a team of people at school to help with different tasks during the day.
Each person plays a different role, but all are aimed at the same target: Giving Kaleigha access to the daily educational experience she’s entitled to—and making that experience a positive one.
“Without them, I would have trouble doing a lot of things,” Kaleigha said. “I would have to ask my friends for help, and I feel like that would take away from their learning. I’m there to learn too, so I don’t want to have to deal with that stuff. My team takes care of the side stuff so I can take care of the big stuff.”
“Side stuff” is acting as Kaleigha’s hands and arms by getting her books from her backpack, helping her write and type, and getting lunch ready.
It’s also, in the larger sense, supporting students with their independence, said occupational therapist (OT) Kat Sherfey, who served as part of Kaleigha’s support team for years at Point Defiance Elementary. Sherfey’s primary role with Kaleigha was helping with written expression to produce classwork and homework.
OTs in schools help students with fine motor skills, writing, drawing and other ways to capture their thoughts with technology or adaptive equipment, such as a head pointer to turn pages. OTs can also help with self-care skills such as dressing, feeding and washing.
Sherfey and Kaleigha worked together to find what works best for Kaleigha.
“Often, it was a give and take of us sharing ideas,” Sherfey said. “In class, she had to find ways to show when she had a comment or idea to share. She couldn’t raise her hand to get the teacher’s attention, so she had to find other methods. She came up with a head nod and shoulder shake. She’s good at finding the way to maintain class rules and expectations, but also participate in class.”
Christine Harenberg Leandro, a physical therapist (PT), served a different role on Kaleigha’s team. Early in elementary school, Harenberg Leandro helped with mobility-related skills—scooting on the floor and strengthening muscles, for example. As Kaleigha grew, they worked on complex skills, like parallel parking Kaleigha’s wheelchair—no small feat when you’re operating a chair using a head array and arm control for speed and precision.
Removing barriers to success
In middle school, the route of guiding students to success looks different depending on the student.
“I see my role as filling in the gaps to make sure there are no barriers between them and success— no matter what success looks like for them,” said Truman Counselor Tristan Allen. “With Kaleigha, I’m there to make sure that she feels heard. I want to make sure she’s totally confident and advocating for herself, and that she’s prepared academically and emotionally for high school. Just like any other kid.”
Kaleigha’s grandmother, Virginia Matteson, said her support team of counselors, paraeducators, OTs and PTs helps Kaleigha feel special and cared for at school. She’s struck by the way her almost-teenager can advocate for herself with all of these adults.
“She’s determined and resourceful. The other day I told her she’d make a great colonel,” she said with a laugh. “But she has to be able to tell people what to do to help her, so it’s to serve her needs.”
Together, the two talk about what’s next – where she will go to high school and college. Kaleigha, now an elected representative in Truman’s student government, sees herself going into technology, or drama, or maybe becoming an interpreter. For now, she plows ahead, leaving strong impressions on her support team, who recognize her independence, confidence, humor and self-advocacy.
That latter piece in particular, is key, said OT Sherfey.
“One of our main roles is to encourage our students who can advocate for themselves to do so – since this is a vital lifelong skill,” she said. “For all of our students, it’s important for their school village to advocate for them as well – for their inclusion, for their independence and safety and support, and to help ensure students’ school experiences are positive.”
Through measures like the Educational Programs and Operations levy voters will see on the Feb. 8 ballot, TPS can provide many necessary supports that the state does not fund, such OTs and PTs for students who need them. The Operations levy also bolsters the number of counselors and paraeducators TPS can provide to students.
Sometimes Kaleigha reflects on her school support team, the role they’ve played in her life and what they mean to her. She and her paraeducator, Dycus, who spend every school day together, are especially close.
“I am grateful to Mary to have someone to help me navigate things,” Kaleigha said. “She kind of sees how I think. You have your built-in best friend that you get to see every day. You do grow a bond and you do grow attached. It is really great to have that friendship and that relationship with the person you’re with all the time.”
About Tacoma Schools
Tacoma Public Schools is the only district designated an Innovation Zone by Washington State. A leader in implementing innovative schools and programs to meet the diverse needs of every student, every day, TPS serves approximately 30,000 students from preschool to grade 12 and at nearly 5000 employees is one of the largest employers in Tacoma. Learn more...