Shining through Companion aides play vital role for those they

Sunday, January 27, 2002

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- Her companion leans over and gently ushers Mary through the dynasties of ancient China and down the Silk Road, occasionally offering guidance -- but always careful to let her find her own way.

Mary, a pretty 12-year-old with warm eyes and a quick smile, picks up on the history lesson and clearly knows most of the answers to the questions on her worksheet.

But the journey from thought to action can be an exhausting one for her.

Physical impediments confine her to a wheelchair and prevent her from doing things that require fine motor skills, such as writing. Small tasks that most children take for granted -- picking up a pencil, pulling a piece of paper toward her -- take tremendous effort. She is able to speak, although some people have difficulty understanding her.

But her intelligence shines through.

"Mary is plenty smart. She's just trapped in this body that doesn't work," said Cindy McIver, Mary's case manager and resource teacher at the 5th & 6th Grade Center.

That's why Wanda Halliburton is there.

Changing times

Halliburton, a perceptive woman with a gentle presence and reassuring smile, is Mary's companion aide.

Companion aides are there "to assist the child with whatever needs to be done," said Leslie Arnold, director of Special Services for the Poplar Bluff R-1 School District. "They're very important individuals."

These aides -- the district currently uses about 15 of them -- weren't part of most classrooms 25 years ago.

But times changed, and as mainstreaming children with special needs into regular classes became routine, companion aides assumed a vital role.

"They assist the student until they can become independent," Arnold said. "We like to have our special-education students be as independent as possible so that when they finish school, they can get a job and become part of society."

The team which puts together an Individual Education Plan for a special-needs student determines whether he or she would benefit from having a companion aide. This team usually consists of the child's teachers, therapists, the principal and the parents. Together, they determine how the companion will help the student.

In Mary's case, Halliburton helps her with her physical environment, accompanying her to classes and scanning her work onto the computer. Homework goes onto a disk she can use on her computer at home. Mary can type in the answers to the questions, or have someone write them for her.

And Halliburton seems to be fine-tuned to Mary's needs. She starts early, before the first bell rings, scanning work into the computer, and then meets Mary at the bus and accompanies her through the school day.

There's more than a hint of pride in her voice when she talks about her charge.

"She doesn't go to any remedial classes; she goes to regular classes and competes with her peers on a sixth-grade level," Halliburton said. "I have never heard her say, 'I don't want to do it' or "I don't know how to do it.' She will try. She's going to give you 150 percent."

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