Education innovation program moves learning outside the classroom

BRISTOL, Va. – Special education teacher Donna Mumpower believes learning isn’t confined to a classroom.

That’s why her students travel to parks, go swimming, plant vegetables and learn to prepare them, express themselves through the arts, experience virtual reality and – starting in August – will have even more outdoor space near the entrance to Virginia Middle School to further spread their wings like the butterflies they helped nurture and are to be released this week.

“This differs from traditional settings because academics are used, but they’re incorporated in everyday life. It’s like old school where you learned basics like math and English but then you got the knowledge of how to put those things together and succeed in everyday life,” Mumpower said. “We want our students to find their path and find what helps them to succeed. If we open all the avenues of art and music and virtual reality and outdoor sensory classrooms – if we open all that opportunity – that will open their minds up.”

Virginia Middle School hosted an open house Wednesday for the special education innovation program.

Mumpower, who has spent the past 18 years in the classroom working with sixth- through eighth-grade special education students, said it has taken 15 years to get her program for special education students to this point.

“We do so many things. Students might be practicing yoga on a mat in the classroom and days later hiking on a trail at Sugar Hollow Park. They swim each week at the Coomes Center in Ab-ingdon.

“We get them out in the community and introduce them to what is in the community and in-troduce them to people so that they’re comfortable in the community, and people are comfort-able with them,” Mumpower said.

Mumpower and her teaching team of Mercedes James and Oles Miller have students this se-mester and are scheduled to have 10 in August.

“Our kids are amazing people. They have the right, and they have the need to feel they can contribute to society. They can and I want to see that happen,” Mumpower said.

She said virtual reality may hold an important key for special needs students, but very little is known.

A handicap-accessible virtual reality space has been established in the school library – just across the hall from Mumpower’s classroom – where her students can access the technology which has already reaped benefits.

“I have a student with autism and that girl would rarely speak to anybody. Now, she will talk your leg off,” Mumpower said. “It’s amazing what virtual reality has done for her. It has been amazing to watch her transformation. Her speech therapist said its ‘phenomenal.’ And that’s just been since February of this year.”

Mumpower said giving students these experiences prompts their curiosity and helps them learn more about a given subject.

“We try not to be in the school as much as possible. And when we are, we try not to be in the classroom too much,” James said. “We’re outside doing hands-on things or in the garden doing hands-on things or the art studio. I think we give our kids a lot of opportunities that not every special ed program gets.

“It makes them independent and helps them learn about things they may not know they’re interested in. We just started pottery and using clay. So many of them love using the clay wheel and making things,” James said. “We give them opportunities to find things they might not get at home or anywhere else.”

James said the garden is also a favorite activity, as students plant a wide array of vegetables, take care of them and get to eat the finished products from beans and tomatoes to potatoes, peppers, peppers, cabbage and watermelons.

Support has come from the Bristol Virginia Education Foundation and Appalachian Sustain-able Development.

“The things these kids can do just shows you that we need to stop putting people in one place and realize they have so much more to offer – especially people with disabilities,” Mumpower said. “We tend to put them all into one little place but they have so much to offer.”