Pungoteague Wants To Pilot Special Needs Swimming Program for District

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By Stefanie Jackson – Pungoteague Elementary School, which recently won an award for continuous improvement on the Virginia Standards of Learning tests during a three-year period, wants to move forward with more support for special education students.

Andre Elliott, of the Eastern Shore YMCA, proposed starting a swimming program for special needs students.

“Drowning is a major cause of death amongst children with special needs and developmental disabilities, especially autism,” he said.

The swimming program would be similar to the one started in Northampton schools about three years ago.

YMCA runs the program, and the sole responsibility of each participating school is to provide transportation to the YMCA.

The first Northampton students to participate were from Occohannock Elementary School, and Kiptopeke Elementary School students joined later.

The program progresses at a modest pace. First, the kids learn to get their faces wet and blow bubbles, so they don’t panic in the water. They also learn to float and swim.

One of the safety maneuvers the students learn is “jump, push, turn, grab.” They jump into the pool, push themselves up from the bottom, and turn and grab the edge of the pool. This teaches the kids what to do in case they fall out of a boat.

The students also learn “swim, float, swim,” so when they are swimming and become tired, they can rest by floating, then resume swimming.

“What I’ve seen from a growth perspective, from these children, is amazing,” Elliott said.

One student, who is blind and uses a wheelchair, used to walk on crutches only occasionally .

After two years in the swimming program, she is “actually moving around more on her crutches, she’s walking into the pool on her own now, absolutely loves getting in the water,” Elliott said.

“As a matter of fact, the instructors fight over who gets to work with her because she’s such a great student,” he added.

Being permitted to go to the pool also helps motivate students who have behavior issues in the classroom, Elliott said.

“I can’t really articulate what this has meant for those kids. You just have to see it.”

The school board unanimously approved further investigation and development of the program.

Principal Brian Patterson also advocated for special education students, who make up 18% of Pungoteague Elementary’s student population.

When Patterson worked with special education students in the 1990s, he had one autistic student. Today, PES has about 20 autistic students, he said.

“Yet if you go back to the ‘90s and look at the structure of what we were doing in the schools to serve the special education kids, it’s not that much different than what we’re doing now,” Patterson said.

“If we keep on doing it the same way, I think that we’re definitely going to continue to run into problems.”

Students with disabilities are lagging behind at PES, with about half of them passing the math SOL and about one-third passing the English SOL in 2019.

But the school is making progress overall. Pungoteague Elementary School recently received the Virginia Board of Education Continuous Improvement Award for increasing SOL performance over the last three years.

Pungoteague was the only school in Accomack or Northampton County to receive the award in 2019.

It also cut chronic absenteeism – students missing 10% or more of the school year – in half. From 2018 to 2019, Pungoteague’s chronic absenteeism rate dropped from about 14% to 7%.

The school has also reduced the number of behavior referrals written annually, from 438 in 2009 to 236 in 2019, a 46% decrease in a 10-year period.

“You can’t have kids learning if there’s misbehavior going on in the school or in the classroom.” Patterson said.

“We’ve really done a good job … teaching kids how to behave.”