Special education helped Jim Holt thrive

Jim Holt, on his custom bicycle, rode a mile each day around the hallways at Islander Middle School. - Contributed Photo
Jim Holt, on his custom bicycle, rode a mile each day around the hallways at Islander Middle School.
— image credit: Contributed Photo

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories about Jim Holt.

Islander Middle School student Jim Holt, who died in February at age 16, was born with severe disabilities. He was unable to speak and had only partial vision and hearing. He was totally dependent upon others for his care.

Yet through the deliberate and innovative schooling he received, Jim was able to learn. He became a cherished student and friend.

His progress was made possible by the partnership formed between his family and the special education and administrative staffs at the Mercer Island School District.

But while Jim’s needs were on the extreme end of the scale, there are hundreds of other children in the school district who receive some type of special education services.

According to Pat Turner, the director of special education services for the school district, there are presently 443 special education students enrolled at Mercer Island schools. They are students who have an individual education plan (IEP). Of those, there are several like Jim who also have individual health care plans.

IEPs are put together by educators, physicians, nurses, psychologists, speech therapists and other professionals for each student who has special needs, whether it is a physical or emotional disorder or a learning disability.

The plans set out learning goals and milestones, and ways to meet both the physical and emotional needs of the student.

The plans can include special equipment, transportation requirements, personal care, diet and communication plans. Jim’s plan eventually grew to 22 pages.

About 10 percent of students who attend Mercer Island schools have IEPs, Turner said.

Such care is the law.

“The school district, by law, must provide a free and appropriate education to all students,” said Turner. “As such, the district must provide whatever supplies are necessary to accommodate these children.”

In order to provide care, emotional and learning support for special needs students like Jim or for those with IEPs, a highly trained staff is required.

According to Turner, the present special education staff includes:

21 certified special education teachers; six psychologists (four are part-time); six speech therapists (two are part-time); two speech therapist assistants; three occupational therapists (part-time); a physical therapist (part-time) and three full-time nurses. In addition there are 60-plus para pros, both full-time and part-time at schools throughout the district.

It does not come cheap.

Expenditures for special education services for the 2011-2012 school year were $5.5 million, representing 13 percent of the total budget for the Mercer Island School District for the year.

Joy Dunne, the school nurse at Mercer Island High School, emphasizes that special education services are all about partnership and teamwork.

Dunne was the first professional from the district to meet Jim Holt’s parents in 1999, just before he began preschool.

Dunne, an RN who also has a degree in special education, said Holt was one the most disabled students she has ever worked with.

Dunne and Jim’s parents worked together to figure out how to deal with his physical needs, such as being fed every two hours, how to cope with his seizures and ensure his safety.

Despite the severity of his disabilities, Dunne said, there were expectations for his learning and growth.

“They wanted the best for him, despite his disabilities,” Dunne said of Kathy Holt and Jim Holt. ”

It was a partnership that lasted until Jim’s sudden death on Feb. 21.

For her part, Jim’s mother Kathy Holt cannot say enough about the school district and the people in the special education program.

“The school district was with us every step of the way,” she said.

Dunne simply said, ‘it is our job.’

“It is our mission to help all students learn regardless of their abilities,” she said.

Turner notes that special needs students like Jim are a gift to staff and students alike.

“Within the Mercer Island School District, there are students like Jim who provide a wonderful experience for non-disabled kids. Those interactions give them compassion, empathy and acceptance — and a good deal of perspective, too,” she said.

To read the first two stories, go to Special needs youth, Jim Holt, touched hundreds and Without sight or words, Jim Holt taught himself and others.


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