Central Elementary school demonstrates the purpose behind National Teacher Appreciation Week
Special education teachers changed Nate’s life, and Nate changed theirs. Now, he’s memorialized in the school where he loved learning and taught life lessons to those around him.
That’s the takeaway from “Nate’s Nook: A Special Education Story”, a touching video produced by the K-State College of Education in celebration of National Teacher Appreciation Week. The story is about a little boy, Nathaniel “Nate” Earl, and the extraordinary professionals – principal Teri Dow, special education teacher Jillian Tinkel and CNA para professionals Kelli Stewart and Harley Tyler – at Central Elementary School in Wamego. The story is being told by an overwhelmingly grateful father.
Rusty Earl, video producer for the K-State College of Education, first came in contact with the special education professionals at West Elementary when he and his wife, Michelle, and kids Hyrum, Hannah and Nate moved to Kansas from Idaho in 2011. (Naomi joined the family in 2013.) Their oldest son, Hyrum, was autistic, and they inquired about the services the school offered.
“Our first team meeting was game-changing,” Rusty Earl said. “We were blown away with the enthusiasm, knowledge and resources available for Hyrum, and his first semester was tremendously successful. “When the teachers and staff learned about Nate, who was old enough to attend the special ed preschool, they began the difficult task of convincing us to send Nate to school despite his challenging health problems.”
The couple had never even considered sending Nate to school as he had profound chronic medical issues. Born with a chromosome abnormality that made him unique to himself, Nate was unable to walk, eat or speak. The teachers were undeterred.
“After seeing the personalized and attentive care given to Hyrum and after negotiating an acceptable level of medical training for the staff, we hesitantly sent Nate to Central Elementary on a trial basis,” Earl said. “He required many accommodations, but every need was met with dignity, foresight and a never-ending well of creativity.”
By all accounts, Nate enjoyed school. He thrived, and thoroughly enjoyed his interactions with the staff and students, and the teachers and students loved him. The family praised the well-designed special education program staffed by loving, capable teachers, para professionals and other support staff. However, over his six years at the school, Nate’s medical condition deteriorated, and in June 2018, he passed away.
But that’s not the end of story. Plans were soon under way to memorialize Nate at Central. After considering several ideas, the school settled on making a cheerful spot, “Nate’s Nook”, at the center of the school where students could walk by and give Nate’s handprint a high-five. A welcoming bench invites student to rest, read or play, and Nate’s mom made several pillows out of some of his favorite blankets and shirts.
The school had the big reveal last month.
“They invited us to see Nate’s Nook and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Earl said. “What a great gesture of love to our son and to all the kids who will visit Nate’s Nook. We feel richly blessed to live in a community and state that values all kids regardless of their abilities. We know Nate was truly loved by the staff at Central Elementary.”
Debbie Mercer, dean of the K-State College of Education, said special education teachers are the greatest need in Kansas and she hopes Nate’s story motivates more people to consider the profession.
“Educators deal with highs and lows, and I can’t think of anything more difficult than the loss of a child,” Mercer said. “But stories like Nate’s shine a light on all we can do as educators – even through the heartbreak – and we hope it inspires others to pursue a career in special education.”