Berthoud El teacher Jenny Schmitz gives struggling students a “safe space”

By Shelley Widhalm

The Surveyor

In her classroom at Berthoud Elementary School, Jenny Schmitz has everything from bean bags and pillows to boxes for fidget toys and stuffed animals. She has books and materials for kindergarten to fifth grade. And she has a mini-trampoline.

Photo by Shlley Widhalm – Jenny Schmitz, far right, listens to rising fourth-graders Makayla Lawless, 10, left, and Brayden Williams, 9, read from a chapter book July 12 during Camp Read, a summer reading program at Berthoud Elementary School.

As a learning-center teacher, Schmitz is prepared for all kinds of students’ needs; from academic to behavioral, such as learning difficulties, autism or attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She works with an average of 30 to 35 students a year who have moderate special needs or are struggling in the classroom and need an intervention to improve their academic skills. The school also has an intensive-learning center for students with severe special needs.

“I want them to have a safe space where they feel comfortable, where they don’t feel like they’re being judged,” said Schmitz of Greeley, who holds master’s degrees in learning disabilities and behavioral disorders and has taught in Thompson School District for 14 years, including two years at Van Buren Elementary School in Loveland and 12 at Berthoud El. “They can relax and still learn and know it’s going to be OK.”

Schmitz provides a short time of support for her students, who have a regular classroom or homeroom teacher in addition to seeing her. They receive most of their instruction in that classroom and attend lunch and the specials, like physical education and art, through the general education program.

“All kids are integrated for a port of the day,” Schmitz said. “Thompson School District, in general, is a very inclusive district. … My students are individually able to navigate the school and don’t need someone next to them all day. They can independently get through the day.”

Schmitz and her aide work with the students on an individual basis or up to 10 students at a time. They provide the students with the academic support they need, such as in reading, writing and mathematics, or address behavioral issues by helping them talk it out and calm down before returning to their classrooms. The mini-trampoline and desk pedals help the students release energy, and a separate area of the classroom with bean bags and pillows offers a space for a sensory break if students become over stimulated.

“I try to meet them in the moment where they’re at,” Schmitz said, adding she identifies what they need to do next to move ahead. “I try to make things feel safe for them.”

Schmitz tells her students, and parents too, that no matter how bad the day gets, tomorrow will be a new day. She gives the credit to her students, who often are struggling and have to persist to get through the day.

“They know it’s not easy for them. They know it’s hard,” Schmitz said. “The credit isn’t on me but on the students. They come back day after day, and they keep trying. They’re persistent, or they persevere, even though it’s challenging for them.”

Schmitz sees a second set of students during the summer months as a Camp Read teacher. Camp Read is a focused reading program for all levels of students, from special needs to needing extra help with reading, and Schmitz works with rising fourth-graders. Each class has a theme, and hers is weather.

Damien Howard, 9, is one of her Camp Read students and thinks Schmitz, who has taught the program for four years, knows a lot about the theme.

“She’s smart. She knows a lot about hurricanes, floods, tornados, weather, food, animals, and she’s the best,” Howard said. “It’s fun. She does a lot of fun things. She has a trampoline, balls, a small table, a big table. She has a fun calendar.”

Camp Read is offered three days a week four hours a day from June 12 to July 26, with no school during the week of Independence Day.

“It’s a chance for kids to stay on track for reading during the summertime,” Schmitz said, adding, research shows students can lose a grade level in reading if they don’t practice over the summer months.

Sue Ellis, a third-grade teacher at Ivy Stockwell Elementary School and a Camp Read teacher at Berthoud Elementary, said Schmitz shows she cares for her students.

“She’s so in it for the kids. Jenny really cares about the kids, all the kids,” Ellis said. “The children know she cares. They know she will do the best she can for them.”

Makayla Lawless, 10, of Berthoud, describes Schmitz as caring and generous.

“She’s funny. She’s smart. She’s kind,” Lawless said. “She’s caring, and she always makes people laugh.”

Cadence Bailey, 9, of Berthoud, used the words “generous,” “kind” and “caring” about Schmitz.

“I think it makes her a good teacher because she’s kind, and she lets everyone have a second chance; and she lets us do what we want when we are silent reading, like flexible seating,” Bailey said.

Bailey Britton, 9, of Berthoud, says Schmitz is amazing, cool, awesome and brilliant.

“She’s a good kind of reading teacher when I come to her class during school. She knows tons of things, and she’s very great at reading. … When she helps me read, she makes me very smart.”

Schmitz likes that, as a Camp Read teacher, she gets to see her students for several hours at a time.

“I like teaching it because it’s different for me to have my own class,” Schmitz said.

Schmitz also likes that she gets to see her students during their entire elementary school career. “I’m able to build a close relationship with the kids, and the parents help me know how to be the best support for them.”

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