Clad in a blue Utah Jazz T-shirt, Jeremy Taylor proudly pointed out his siblings in a family portrait he brought to show-and-tell at his class at Dan W. Peterson School.
Taylor's thick fingers clasped the plastic frame firmly as he finished his presentation in the middle of the room decorated with colorful letters, numbers and posters. Teacher Heidi Kunz led the class in applause for Taylor, a bright-eyed young man with a jovial grin and bouncy stride."This is the highest-functioning class," principal Brent Taylor explained from the hallway of the small Utah County school. "There's a lot of speaking and language skills."
Brent Taylor, who has administered the special-education facility for the severely disabled in American Fork for four years, said a dedicated staff patiently help some 160 enrolled students learn basic academic and job skills in the classroom, strengthen muscles and limbs in therapy and interact with others in social settings.
"We've got kids from single-digit IQs to people who could eventually have jobs and live half-normal lives," Brent Taylor said. "Some have tried to be mainstreamed and it didn't work. This school is a nice step for kids and parents. We're kind of a step in a continuum of services the district offers."
Alpine School District officials built the school, 169 N. 1100 East, in 1982 for mentally or physically handicapped students who required more therapy and one-on-one educational supervision than what could be offered in mainstream classes.
Some 3.5 percent of the district's student population who need special-education assistance last year were enrolled in a class separated from regular classes, a move that goes against some popular thought of how to educate children with special needs.
Peterson students start at 5 years old and stay until they are 22 or are able to graduate. Three will leave the school at the end of this year to look for jobs or transfer to an adult facility.
"When they are 14 we start to look at what the kids need and direct them toward job training and independent living," Brent Taylor said. "We try to get an idea of what they like and go toward that."
The brown brick building is named for a former district superintendent who was a strong supporter of initiatives for students with special needs. Peterson died two years ago.
Heidi Kunz, a student teacher majoring in special education at Brigham Young University, said the class has opened her eyes and changed her mind about how students with mental challenges should be educated.
"I was pro-inclusion before I came here," Kunz said. "But now I think that the students' needs are met better than they could be in any other setting."
For example, she said, Jeremy, the 13-year-old Down syndrome student called J.T. by friends, "is doing very well" in the class. "If he were in a regular school, he would not excel as much as he does here."
Each Peterson student has an individualized education plan for specific needs. And children are separated by ability, not age, when assigned to classrooms instructed by one teacher and two aides.
"Some students come in unable to write their names or speak in sentences. Within a short amount of time, they can do it," she said. "There are high expectations for them."
Richard Kiefer-O'Donnell is the coordinator of the teacher-training program in severe disabilities at the University of Utah. A few of his students are finishing their student training at the Peterson school.
Kiefer-O'Donnell sees a nationwide shift toward a "personal planning approach" when teaching students with severe handicaps. Teachers also are thinking of students as "differently abled" rather than handicapped or disabled.
"Rather than looking at what they can't do," he said, "we're looking at what they can do and focus on that strength."
Parents and special-needs students also should decide what educational or job path to follow by taking into account the students' mental and emotional abilities, in addition to any overriding desire to belong to a group, he said.
Renee Ogden and Dorothy Sisam have 45 combined years of experience in special education. The two para-professionals in the school's physical therapy room help wheelchair-bound students like 6-year-old Shawn Austin increase strength, flexibility and basic movements.
Ogden and Sisam delight in Austin's playful fixation on Disney's "The Little Mermaid" and an upcoming dance being planned for Peterson students.
"On the playground they are fun to watch," Ogden said. "They have their wheelchairs and they go around and around. They are like a little gang."
The therapists also agree that public perception of schools like Peterson has changed drastically over the years. Gone are the days of dreary institutions where the mentally and physically handicapped were sent to live, shunned by society.
"The public is more aware of the needs of the students," Ogden said.
April West was familiar with the mission of the school when she moved to American Fork with her family. West looked there when she decided to volunteer in the community.
"I was looking for a good project," said West, who helped organize a fund-raising event for the school at a Lehi boutique in March. Proceeds from the sale donations are being dedicated to a $10,000 awning to shade an outside playground.
A good number of children at the school takes medication that makes their skin extremely sensitive to sunlight. The awning would allow the children to play outdoors without the risk of overexposure to the sun.
"It doesn't matter how much sunscreen we put on them," Brent Taylor said. "After 10 or 15 minutes you start to see them getting pink."
So far, $300 has been put into an account with the Alpine Foundation, with more expected from anonymous donors. Such corporations as Mountain America Bank and Zion Bank have pledged to contribute.
"The community has been really neat," Taylor said. "We got donations from all over the place. It's been great to see."