Rosie’s story

After schools across the state were cut $1.3 billion last year, Jacqueline Owens was deeply grateful when the North Syracuse Early Education Program was spared the budget axe last spring.

Now, there’s talk of more cuts. Owens, like other parents across the state, wonder what more will be cut from their schools. Owens no longer has any pre-K students of her own. But she fights for the program constantly. Why?

Because when Rosemarie Judith Owens was born July 18, 1998, she was four weeks early and unable to breathe on her own. Here she is at one day old.

The infant spent most of her first eight days at St. Joseph’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. When her mom needs to be reminded of that time, she goes to her journal. “I wrote a lot.  I wanted her to have our thoughts about her first few days,” Jacquie recalls. Finally she was released to go home and then the new parents “spent most nights just listening for her breathing.”

The fact “Rosie” was premature meant the new parents were told to expect delays.

“We knew she was slow to respond and had low muscle tone, but were not concerned until about 9 months. She didn’t ever turn over much and still wasn’t crawling,” Jacquie said.

Then at her 12 month well-child visit, the doctor mentioned developmental testing. The results found Rosie was delayed in gross motor skills, speech, and fine motor skills as well as sensory integration dysfunction.

As Rosie developed, Jacquie realized how much her child depended on her parents for communication. In a childcare situation, she struggled.

The noise and activity of the other youngsters caused her to cry until most of the kids left. She would not leave our side at the store and had tremendous difficulty transitioning to other activities. While other parents were trying to keep track of their little ones, we were encouraging her to take a step away from us. With no speech except a few sounds, we had to anticipate her needs for the first three years. There were no professional photos, and no trips to places where she would be overwhelmed. We finally received a working diagnosis: Developmental Apraxia of Speech. The prognosis was she could suddenly begin talking or she would remain struggling to be understood the rest of her life. The same with her motor skills.”

Instead of being devastated, the Jacquie and Bill Owens dug in. “We loved Rosie no matter what and we would help her communicate any way she could. It didn’t matter if she never spoke a word, we wouldn’t give up on her,” Jacquie said. Jacquie with 3-month-old Rosie

At about 3 years old, Rosie began speaking small sentences but only with a few people. Her mother recalls that her anxiety increased with strangers or people she hadn’t seen in awhile. She would cry if a cashier looked at her. This made it difficult to develop appropriate social skills.

“We knew she needed more than staying at home with mom,” Jacquie said. The Committee of Preschool Special Education Report specified an inclusive preschool environment with speech and occupational therapy. The North Syracuse Early Education Program (Main Street School) operates through central New York. They had to chose between afternoons with a female teacher or mornings with a male teacher.

“She was more afraid of men but she tired quickly in the afternoon. So morning it was,” Jacqui said. She now calls that the “best choice we ever made” in Rosie’s schooling.

The day before Rosie was to start school, they “sneaked in” so Rosie could see it without all the activity of kids and teachers. Phil Cleary was setting up his classroom but stopped to speak directly to Rosie. I assumed Rosie wouldn’t even look at him but amazingly they clicked. We were sure we were in the right place when she let Phil hold her dolly.

It did take three months for Rosie to not cry when her parents left her in the classroom. She wouldn’t initially talk in class either. She stayed next to an adult. In many subtle ways, things changed. Teacher encouraged Rosie to interact with her peers, and she began to play with the others. Halfway through the year, they recommended physical therapy and that was the last piece Rosie needed. Her motor planning skills blossomed and the staff in her classroom nurtured her and expected a lot from her.

But the staff taught more than Rosie. Among the lessons the Owens learned:

  • There are no disabilities, just challenges with opportunities
  • Children are limited only by what the adults keep them from doing
  • All children need to be exposed to as many trusted adults early in life as we can provide.

Jacquie Owens shared a lot of specific instances about each of those lessons, even the painful ones. She still recalls being angry when a speech therapists asked them not to talk for Rosie when she was in school. “I thought that was a high-handed judgement.”Jacquie said. “After some careful thought, I realized she wanted Rosie to speak for herself. Another turning point for us. We realized that a lot the tasks we did for her, she could do on her own. Rosie didn’t like the change in the rules but after awhile, she saw how much she could do on her own and it was a beautiful thing to behold for all of us.”

In two years the family made great strides.Rosie’s speech and social skills improved and so did her parent’s acceptance of her reserved temperament. “We aren’t outgoing, but accepting that our child was not either was a big step,” Jacquie said. “Phil helped us to accept Rosie just as she was, shy and strong, reserved and intelligent.

He and the whole staff modeled a sense of belonging, a sense that these were all great children; no matter what challenges they faced.”

Here is a picture from the classroom.

That’s Rosie, sporting the blonde bob haircut, helping Cleary  and another student paint.

“By the end of her second year at preschool, we realized that she no longer was easily overwhelmed, that she could handle changes in routine, and she could communicate,” Jacquie said. The big question? Would Rosie be ready for kindergarten. How would their child deal with a new school without the safe support of the staff at Main Street?

She did just fine. “In fact, she has never looked back. She now is a self-assured young lady who is thoughtful of others and able to handle new things. She graduated out of all therapies in kindergarten. Her physical and emotional development continues to grow. She climbs trees, skateboards, reads voraciously and is a straight A student. She plays violin (one of her challenges where the Apraxia shows) and loves her 11-year-old sister Maddy dearly.

She has played in Shakespeare dramatizations without fear, and is very driven to do well in school and anything she tries. I credit the Main Street school and staff for starting her on a road toward a fulfilling and successful life.  We are better parents because of Main Street’s influence,” Jacquie said.

For Rosie, she always smiles whenever anyone mentions Main Street. She keeps in touch with her former teacher Phil Cleary when she can. Here’s a picture of the two of them at a rally this spring protesting budget cuts.

For Rosie, she always smiles whenever anyone mentions Main Street. She keeps in touch with her former teacher Phil Cleary when she can. Here’s a picture of the two of them at a rally this spring protesting budget cuts.

Many NYSUT folks know Phil Cleary through his political action alerts. For those who don’t get them, here’s his tagline  — Phil teaches preschool special education in North Syracuse and serves as NYSUT’s PAC coordinator in New York’s 50th Senate District  – when he and the kids aren’t fingerpainting.

All educators have stories about their kids and their families. Rosie’s story is remarkable. Phil recalls how Rosie came into his class when she was 3. She was very delayed, needing occupational, physical and speech therapies. He is as proud of Rosie as her parents are, even if she wasn’t on high honor roll, in school plays or a violinist.

“She’s a great young lady,” Cleary said. “And she, and the hundreds of other kids we teach, are why I love what I do and love public education. Good things happen in school.”

Yes, they do.

Tags: ,