New Kansas State University College of Education video highlights special education, special Wamego student
Friday, May 10, 2019
"Nate's Nook: A Special Education Story" is a new video by the Kansas State University College of Education in celebration of National Teacher Appreciation Week, May 6-10.
MANHATTAN — Special education teachers changed Nate's life, and Nate changed theirs. Now, he's memorialized in the school where he loved learning and taught life lessons to those around him.
That's the takeaway from "Nate's Nook: A Special Education Story," a new video produced by the Kansas State University College of Education in celebration of National Teacher Appreciation Week, May 6-10. The story is about a young student, Nathaniel "Nate" Earl, and the extraordinary professionals — principal Teri Dow, special education teacher Jillian Tinkel and certified nursing assistant paraprofessionals Kelli Stewart and Harley Tyler — at Central Elementary School in Wamego. The story is told by Earl's father, Rusty Earl, who is the video producer for the College of Education.
Rusty Earl first came in contact with the special education professionals in the Wamego school district when he and his wife, Michelle, and kids, Hyrum, Hannah and Nate (their fourth child, Naomi, joined the family in 2013), moved to Kansas from Idaho in 2011. Hyrum, the oldest child, was autistic, and the Earls' inquired about the services the school offered.
"Our first team meeting was game-changing," Rusty Earl said. "We were blown away with the enthusiasm, knowledge and resources available for Hyrum, and his first semester was tremendously successful. When the teachers and staff learned about Nate, who was old enough to attend the special ed preschool, they began the difficult task of convincing us to send Nate to school despite his challenging health problems."
The couple had never even considered sending Nate to school as he had profound chronic medical issues. Born with a chromosome abnormality that made him unique to himself, Nate was unable to walk, eat or speak. The teachers were undeterred.
"After seeing the personalized and attentive care given to Hyrum and after negotiating an acceptable level of medical training for the staff, we hesitantly sent Nate to Central Elementary on a trial basis," Rusty Earl said. "He required many accommodations but every need was met with dignity, foresight and a never-ending well of creativity."
Rusty Earl said Nate thrived in school and enjoyed his interactions with teachers, staff and students. He also praised Central's special education program, calling it well-designed and staffed by loving, capable teachers, paraprofessionals and other support staff. However, over his six years at the school, Nate's medical condition deteriorated and in June 2018, he died.
But that's not the end of Nate's story. Plans were soon underway to memorialize him at Central. After considering several ideas, the school settled on making a cheerful spot, Nate's Nook, at the center of the school where students could walk by and give Nate's handprint a high-five. A welcoming bench invites students to rest, read or play, and Nate's mom made several pillows out of some of his favorite blankets and shirts.
The school had the big reveal in April.
"They invited us to see Nate's Nook and there wasn't a dry eye in the house," Rusty Earl said. "What a great gesture of love to our son and to all the kids who will visit Nate's Nook. We feel richly blessed to live in a community and state that values all kids regardless of their abilities. We know Nate was truly loved by the staff at Central Elementary."
Debbie Mercer, dean of the College of Education, said special education teachers are the greatest need in Kansas and she hopes Nate's story motivates more people to consider the profession.
"Educators deal with highs and lows, and I can't think of anything more difficult than the loss of a child," Mercer said. "But stories like Nate's shine a light on all we can do as educators – even through the heartbreak – and we hope it inspires others to pursue a career in special education."