Written by Brittany Hanewinkel
When a member of the Fontbonne community spends time in Ryan Hall or the East Building, they will undoubtedly notice a group of amiable students pushing a cart of coffee and cookies. Following closely behind is Madeleine Grucza, their educator. Although these students bring a smile to the faces of all that they interact with, it is seldom remembered how crucial their education is to their success in the community.
Madeleine Grucza, the Special School District (SSD) educator at Fontbonne, is known for her perfectly bobbed hair and kind demeanor. She began her education at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but eventually transferred to the University of Tulsa in Tulsa Oklahoma, studying education.
Some of Grucza’s other hobbies include visiting coffee shops, spending time with family, gardening and watching films and documentaries.
Grucza is on her 29th year of employment with the SSD. She is retiring and shifting her focus toward families. May 23 will be her final day working with students.
SSD of St. Louis County has a unique program in comparison to the rest of the country.
“The uniqueness in SSD lies in the fact that they provide special education services for all school districts in St. Louis County, as opposed to those districts providing their own special education services for children enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade.” Dr. Michael Barla, a Special Education professor at Fontbonne explained.
The SSD program at Fontbonne is better referred to as the Neuwoehner Classroom, because it is an extension of the Neuwoehner School in Town and Country, Missouri.
“The program started 19 years ago with myself as the teacher, a paraprofessional and 7 students. We shared space with the English department in Ryan Hall.” Grucza recalls.
Grucza emphasized the importance of her paraprofessional, Tracey McKinney, in helping to carry out the various functions of the classroom.
“After 10 years together, we are like a well-oiled machine. We want the same things for our students and work as a team to help move them in that direction.”
The Neuwoehner Classroom is now located in Ryan Hall cafeteria and hosts 5 students. Due to privacy regulations, the range of the students’ disabilities within the classroom will not be released. ‘
“Fontbonne is an inclusive community, and Grucza students are part of our community.” Dr. Deanna Rice, a Special Education professor at Fontbonne stated.
“The Fontbonne community has created an environment where our students can thrive. Fontbonne includes our students as if they were their own. The Fontbonne mission is exemplified in its relationship to our students. There is no place I would rather be ending my teaching career than here.” Grucza adds.
Students with disabilities may continue the program until they turn 21. At school and before a student graduates from the program, they begin to work toward their individualized post-secondary goal. The exact goal differs between students.
“It all depends on their interests, abilities and funding. Some graduates will work in the community at a paid job, others will participate in a day program where they volunteer at various places as well as work on daily living skills. Others work at local sheltered workshops and other graduates do a combination of paid work, volunteering, and activities in the community they are interested in.” Grucza explained.
A sheltered workshop is any workplace designated to only hire people with disabilities. Typically in a factory-type setting, employers only have to pay workers by the rate at which they produce products.
“This can be a problem for people who are trying their hardest but are only able to produce a small amount each hour. Most employees with disabilities appreciate having a job, but I would at least like to see them make minimum wage.”
Many of Grucza’s students participate in the 8-week Summer Work Experience Program (SWEP), which, at times, can transfer into a job.
“One of my students worked at Shop ‘n Save during SWEP, and the supervisor came to realize what a good worker he was and ended up hiring him. That’s awesome, that is our hope for our students.”
“Our class motto is, ‘A goal without a plan is just a wish’. In order to make our goals come true, it is important to have a plan and work towards it so when you reach graduation day, you are ready for that next step to adult life.” Grucza continued.
Students are provided an opportunity to develop their everyday living skills by rotating through a variety of jobs both on and off-campus.
“The jobs on campus include our class Coffee Cart business, the collection of recyclables, stocking in the college bookstore, pulling books from the library shelves, housekeeping in East building, cleaning tables and dishes and mail collection. Off campus jobs include working at the Sunrise on Clayton Retirement Community and Kaldi’s Coffee House in DeMun.”
“It is non-paid training. They are developing their job skills so that they can hopefully be employable after graduation.” Grucza offered.
The profits of the class Coffee Cart business go toward restocking supplies for the cart. Any additional funds are used to benefit the class in the community.
Students also receive a formal element of education, which ranges from reading, writing, cooking, money management, current events and exercise. Each Friday, students take public transportation to an area in the community that can further develop their understanding of their life skill of the month.
“This month our theme is Self Advocacy and Communication. Students wrote letters and purchased postage at two local post offices, they toured the public radio station in Grand Center and practiced calling the Metro bus company to get bus route information. Next month, the theme is Living Arrangements where they will visit vacant apartments in the area and learn about rent and utility costs. They will visit a group home where adults with disabilities live with staff support and they will wash, dry and iron their clothes.” Grucza elaborated.
“Some students will always need the support of someone with them, whereas, others eventually can perform skills completely on their own.”
Stephen Lendy, a junior studying Special and Elementary Education, works closely with Grucza and her students while fulfilling his 100 hour Special Education practicum.
“Madeleine interacts with her students in a loving and nurturing manner. She is definitely the students’ number one fan! She believes in the students and strives everyday for them to succeed inside and outside the classroom. In addition, Madeleine acts in a positive manner and gives the students real-life thinking and responsibilities.” Lendy observed.
“The impact of having an inclusive community is discovering that we are more similar than different. When my teacher education students spend time with Madeleine’s students, they share insights including ‘they are just like me’ and ‘he taught me something new’. We can all learn from each other. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, but we.” Dr. Rice declared.
Next time you notice the Coffee Cart business at work, consider treating yourself to a cookie and interacting with the students. It is not simply a fun part of their day, but a pertinent contribution to their individual success.
Brittany Hanewinkel is the Web Editor and a contributor to Fontbonne University’s Griffin Roar.