Norman Winter tells of the time some 25 years ago when he received a free jig from Maynard Hefley, long-time owner and manager of The Lumberyard that recently closed in Hillsboro.
Hefley had posed the idea of Winter using the jig with his special education students so they could construct small storage buildings to sell.
“I took it, and thought, ‘Wow, can we actually do this?’” said Winter, who retired in May after completing his 33rd year of teaching, the majority with Marion County Special Education Cooperative.
With the jig and extraordinary help of a couple of talented para-professional educators, Winter said the students built their first storage shed that year.
“We sold it for cost of materials,” he said. “After that one, we built 65 more (over the years).”
Winter said he also credits the project’s success to Superintendent Gordon Mohn, who approved allocating and renovating the facility space required and supplying what was needed to implement the program.
“I’ve found over the years that some of these kids really enjoy getting out in the shop and doing things,” Winter said. “So I decided we’re going to make projects. For every 25 minutes (students) do book work, we’ll work in the shop for 25 minutes.”
Thus, project-based learning, a major emphasis in education today, is something Winter said he’s been implementing since he was hired by MCSEC in 1989 after the state had mandated a program for special needs students that would help guide their transition to vocational training and/or work experience.
Winter, who grew up in Durham, earned his bachelor’s degree at Emporia State University and a master’s degree at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. His first four years of teaching were in Hutchinson, where Winter met his wife, Gloria.
After his parents died, the couple moved back to the family farm, where he worked for 13 years before deciding to go back to teaching.
“When I left the farm, I took this job in special ed, and they had started a new transition program,” Winter said. “I was hired by a lady who knew nothing about (the transition program) because it was new. So, I had the opportunity to develop it the way I saw it should be developed, which was really good.”
It took some time before the transition program found a physical home. During his first two years with MCSEC, Winter said he worked at Goessel on forming the program. The following couple of years his classes were in the basement of the Hillsboro Middle School, and then for a time in the Gambles store on North Main Street.
Winter said the program moved into its current location at Hillsboro High School in the early 1990s.
In 1997 and 2004, federal legislation required all students 14 years and older in Marion County receiving special education services to have a transition plan in their Individual Education Plan (IEP). Winter said such a plan helps prepare students for post-high school educational training programs or employment.
With grant money, Winter said MCSEC purchased a vocational evaluation program to aid in setting and assessing transitional goals.
Titled the Practical Arts Evaluation System, the curriculum-based evaluation involves a wide range of hands-on activities and some paper-pencil tests to observe a range of different skills and knowledge.
MCSEC serves Marion County’s five school districts, which include USD 397 Center, USD 398 Peabody-Burns, USD 408 Marion-Florence, USD 410 Durham-Hillsboro-Lehigh and USD 411 Goessel.
“The superintendents (from other school districts) felt like (the program) was worthy of bussing students here (to Hillsboro),” he said.
In Winter’s classes, students performed basic skills and behaviors that are expected in vocational programs and entry-level employment, he said, adding that students are encouraged to work independently and learn how to solve problems within the four areas of business, home economics, industrial arts and manipulatory skills.
“The goal is to find out what the student can do, and then build from there,” Winter said.
The number of students in his classroom varied anywhere from 15 to 25 each day. All of the students attended class in Hillsboro.
“The Hillsboro kids would follow the Hillsboro schedule,” he said. “The other schools, because of transportation issues, may send a kid…to be in the class one hour, two hours, three hours and then at noon or the end of the day they would catch a ride going back to the home district.”
Winter said each year he puts together a summary that outlines his duties and what he intends to accomplish with the students in his charge.
Winter’s name is listed on the IEP of every student 14 years and older for the five districts. This past year, that meant working with 140 students and involved attending each of their annual IEP meetings.
“I try to meet with the student prior to the meeting and have them tell me, ‘Well, what do you want to do after school?’” he said. “And then the next question is, ‘Do you think you’re going to be qualified?’”
Based on the vocational evaluations, Winter said he would recommend that next step for students at their IEP meetings.
“I want to see kids go into vocational training, go to a four-year college, a two-year college, a vocational program, get a job,” he said. “Those are your choices. It doesn’t matter what their intellect is, we can find employment if they’re willing to do it.”