Pioneer brings innovation to special education

Pittsburgh’s Pioneer Education Center, located in Brookline, has been a part of Pittsburgh Public Schools for over 50 years. Photo by Rebekah Devorak.

Pittsburgh’s Pioneer Education Center, located in Brookline, has been a part of Pittsburgh Public Schools for over 50 years. Photo by Rebekah Devorak.

By: Shannon Rodgers

Principal David Lott made sure the halls of Pioneer Education Center could be in any school: Orange and black posters with “Boo!” and “Happy Halloween” line the hallway in preparation for the upcoming holiday. A television monitor hangs in the lobby reviewing the year in photographs. Student artwork is displayed on almost every wall surrounding the classrooms.

But, in fact, the school is unlike any other in the city.

David started as principal at the Pioneer Education Center two years ago. It’s the only school in Pittsburgh designed specifically for students with disabilities.

These disabilities range from cerebral palsy to developmental delays. David walks in the outdoor garden and stops at the wheelchair accessible swing set. He believes every child should swing.

“We do everything any other school does, but we make it adaptive for the kids,” he says.

That adaptive approach even means a prom including everything from promenades to dinner. The school provides tuxedos, alters dresses and accommodates dietary needs.

“If a student needs their food pureed, we do that,” David says. “Some students can’t self-feed, so we accommodate that.”

David was asked to switch from Oliver Citywide Academy to Pioneer Education Center two years ago. Wrapping up his second year at the Academy, he felt as if he was just getting started. Despite his hesitancy, the switch happened anyway.

David notes, “In the 21 years I’ve been in this field, this is one of the most challenging jobs I’ve had. But it’s also the most rewarding.”

The school had a harvest festival this past fall, where students rode horses and picked pumpkins. Cynthia Marsh, an occupational therapist at the school, highlights the importance of celebrating the holiday.

“A lot of our kids due to their situation don’t get to go out and do trick-or-treating so we make sure we have trick-or-treat here. We just had a harvest festival so they could come here and go through the pumpkin patch and get a pumpkin. We try to provide them with those same types of activities,” she says.

Through both the events and the everyday school setting, David notes, “It reminds you of why you went into education in the first place.”

Many places for kids with disabilities are medical facilities with educational components added in. However, the school is an educational center with physical and medical facilities.

It has occupational therapy, physical therapy, hearing, vision, art and music education, as well as a pre-vocational workshop.

David adds that before his time as principal at the school is up, he wants to add an aquatic therapy pool to the center.

An important part of the school is the outdoor area. With a sensory friendly garden, multiple swing sets and a circular track for walking or bicycles, the students spend a lot of time outdoors.

Debra Harris, who has been at the school for 20 years, explains, “Many of our kids are medically fragile so they can’t tolerate being in the sun too long but for many of our kids, they get outside here more than they ever do.”

“The garden is set up for all ages. It’s set up so that all the kids from the whole school, whether you’re at a three-month-old level, or if you’re able to move around and interact more, can to come out here and listen to the wind chimes and touch the different plants,” Debra says.

Employees work with students to plan for an individual lifestyle after graduation. The pre-vocational workshop helps the students figure out which direction they would like to go in after graduation. Here, a student learns different skills for future jobs and employees work to find any adaptations the student might need for the job.

If an independent living situation isn’t a possibility, long-term care living arrangements are made. Patrick Ferrell has worked at the school for over 30 years and emphasizes how important planning for the future is.

“When our kids leave Pioneer, we want to make sure they have a place to go that, instead of just sitting at home, they can continue to get out of the house every day,” Patrick says.

It’s clear the employees help the students experience school just like any other child, whether it’s a tour of the vegetable garden or a visit to the school gym. By focusing on individualized education programs, students are given opportunities that are unheard of in other schools.