MUHS special educator experiences a world of changes in 40-year career

MIDDLEBURY — Katharine Scribner recalled her first job working as a special educator. It was 1975, at Brighton Elementary School in Island Pond, near the Vermont/Canada border. She had just earned her master’s degree in learning disabilities and behavioral disorders from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.
As she prepares for retirement this June after 40 years as a special educator — 33 of them at Middlebury Union High School — Scribner believes her year in Island Pond proved an effective baptism by fire for what has been a successful and productive career.
“I was interested in working in a suburban or even rural area, and received an invitation to interview in Derby, Vermont,” recalled Scribner, who at first mistook the invite to be from Derry, N.H.
One she had straightened out the location, she drove through the night to her interview because she couldn’t afford a hotel room.
After landing the job, she found out there were no housing vacancies near the school.
“For the first two weeks, I lived in the nurse’s office,” Scriber said. “They let me put all my things in there, because the school was empty.”
It was still summer vacation. There was a bed and shower in the nurse’s quarters that she was able to use.
Two weeks later, she found an apartment to rent, then transitioned into a vacant hunting camp.
“I was there all by myself in this hunting camp with loaded guns and moose heads and mice and bats that I had not counted on,” Scribner said. “It seemed like hundreds of mice. As soon as I turned the lights off, they were prancing around.”
She was the only special educator at the Brighton School, and initially received no direction from the state on how to deliver services to her students.
“Any (special needs student) who walked through the door was mine,” Scribner said. “Since I had no direction from the state, I thought I had to provide the full program for all of the kids with disabilities, and I couldn’t hold all of them in the little room they gave me that had three doors and no windows. It was a storage room.”
Scribner prepared 33 individual lessons per day until state officials informed her several months later that she was doing more than she needed to.
“It was quite a year,” said Scribner, who left the Brighton School after one year to become a special educator for Woodstock secondary schools. “I felt if I could handle all that, I could do almost anything.”
From Woodstock, she graduated to the position of “itinerant special education teacher” for the Route 100 communities of Granville, Hancock and Rochester. Hancock and Granville now tuition all of their students to other districts.
In 1981, she found what would become her perfect career match — special educator at MUHS. It is a job she has loved and will miss when she retires this summer.
“Each time I moved, I came a little closer to civilization,” Scribner joked of her gradual, professional migration from Island Pond to Middlebury. Frank Kelley was rounding out his tenure as MUHS principal when she arrived.
“I was given a pile of folders and told, ‘These will be the students who will be in your case file,’” she recalled. “I took it from there.”
“It was a fairly new field,” Scribner said of the special education teaching landscape of the 1970s and early 1980s. “In the past, you tended to think of students who are in special education programs as those who are severely physically handicapped or, the old-world word, which was ‘retarded.’”
A lot of things have of course changed since then, including elimination of the offensive word “retarded,” now replaced by “developmentally delayed.” The students that Scribner and her colleagues now serve are carefully assessed and given individual learning plans. They are mainstreamed to the greatest extent possible into regular classes. Special education services are also delivered separately in classes of up to eight students for those with significant challenges.
“All of the students that I see, and the kids I case-manage, are all in mainstream classes, as appropriate,” Scribner said.
She also teaches art, reading, writing and social communications, a class that helps students learn how to communicate with people, including how to pick up on physical cues and interact socially with people.
“Navigating the adolescent world is so difficult,” Scriber said. “This (class) helps them get along with each other and helps them stand up for each other, how to tell the truth, and what to do when you see someone cheating.”
Scribner must, of course, keep the identities of all her students confidential. Her caseload through the years has fluctuated from 20 to 30. This year, she is responsible for the education plans of 28 students who require extra help in learning to the best of their abilities. She is responsible for coordinating her students’ education during their entire high school careers. She can actually assist students until they turn 22, provided they have not yet graduated.
She is gratified by the extent to which special education services in Vermont have improved since she broke into teaching four decades ago.
“I was marginalized before, and so were the students, in the sense that teachers would say, ‘I don’t know how to deal with special education kids, you do, and here they are,’” Scribner said. “They would be happy for me to take on a lot of the education and ‘do my magic’ and put them back.”
Nowadays, teachers are trained to recognize the individual needs of students and to be more inclusive, according to Scribner.
“We have a wonderful group of teachers here who ask, ‘What can I do to make a quality education for this child?’” she said. “It’s exciting to be part of that.”
Teachers now work as a team to tailor students’ assignments to their respective capabilities in order to maximize learning in mainstream classes, Scribner said.
At the same time, Scribner is able to provide additional help to students having difficulties with reading, writing and other subject matter. She recommends courses to her students and helps them develop schedules for the academic year. Scribner also works with parents to troubleshoot any problems the student might be encountering in school.
Scribner has taught many children of varying abilities during her career. The most severely disabled students are enrolled in a “Life Skills” program offered at MUHS. That program is geared to students who might have cerebral palsy, be wheelchair-bound and/or reliant on feeding tubes. Other students might have autism, suffer from depression, have a chronic illness, or have Attention Deficit Disorder.
“If they can physically write or use a computer or use one of the headbands with a stick, then they can certainly be in the class,” Scribner said.
Vermont’s public school system has made great strides in diagnosing and defining specific disabilities in students, according to Scribner.
“That’s what’s made the job so exciting,” she said. “Back in the 1970s, when I was training, we had a very small number of disabilities because we didn’t have differential diagnosis. Now we have many more, and it’s not because more people are developing disabilities; now we have names for them and better treatments and ways to approach them.”
Scribner is confident that even more progress will come to the special education field over time. But it will not come during her tenure. Now 64, she’s decided to call it a career. Scribner will take advantage of the extra time to help raise her two-year-old granddaughter, pursue interests, and volunteer with the Congregational Church of Middlebury.
She has eight stepchildren, the youngest of which is 38. Her husband is Dana Scribner.
Retirement is not something that Scribner has been yearning for. She admits there will be a large void in her life when she steps down.
“I don’t feel for a second that I have been counting the days, that I can’t wait to leave,” she said. “I am fortunate to leave still loving the job.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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