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Collaboration Leads to Remarkable Connection

For three years, students from the Juvenile HomeStudent and Mentor work on weaving project Schools Intensive Learning Center (ILC) have been spending time with students at WoodsEdge Learning Center – the collaborative project that brings together these two unlikely groups of Kalamazoo RESA (KRESA) students is as heartwarming as it is impactful.

Kayla Pagano is a math and career readiness special education teacher at the ILC, an alternative school for court-placed students ages 13-17. While there, the program emphasizes improved attendance, academic gains, and social skills, to ensure students succeed in school and as productive members of the community, Pagano said.

In 2017, she began working with Heather Bigelow, an art therapy teacher from WoodsEdge, a center-based special education program serving students with cognitive and physical impairments. They came up with a plan to bring ILC students to WoodsEdge to collaborate on an art project. The first attempt was so successful, the teachers were awarded a grant to expand the project the following year. And in 2019, they expanded it again and began bringing ILC students to WoodsEdge for full days.

“The first year, we weren’t sure how it was going to work out,” Bigelow said. “It can be overwhelming for someone who hasn’t spent time with our students.” WoodsEdge students are often multiply impaired, meaning they have physical and cognitive needs. They may be in a wheelchair, visually impaired, or autistic. Many of them communicate in nontraditional ways, Bigelow said.

She recalls a student from the ILC who stood outside the classroom where severely cognitively impaired students were participating in art. “She was in tears,” Bigelow said. “She said she couldn’t handle it.” The ILC student eventually agreed to try and ended up successfully taking part in the project.

“The students help each other. We’ve watched them grow,” Bigelow said. “Some of my (WoodsEdge) students now approach their peers (from the ILC) and invite them to participate. And you can see how much they soften up.”
During the most recent collaboration, the students worked on an art mural together. They had to design it from start to finish. An ILC student sketched the tree design and explained it by saying, “Caring for others allows you to grow.”

In addition to the art collaboration, the team added physical education with teacher Amanda Betke once per week. Students from the ILC co-teach and participate in activities with their WoodsEdge peers. ILC students also helped with the WoodsEdge prom, Arts Extravaganza event, and spent time reading aloud to students.

Pagano believes the collaboration helps her students build empathy and compassion. “They better understand students who are different,” she said. “I’ve watched them improve through this experience. Students who struggled with attendance would always show up on our WoodsEdge days.” Students struggling with acting out knew they had to manage their emotions to make the trip offsite, so she saw improvements in behavior, too.

The moments between students warm your heart, Pagano said. “Society does not look at my students in the best light, even though I get to see the amazing side of them every day. This project gave others an opportunity to see how amazing they are.”

The collaboration between the ILC and WoodsEdge was putFuture teacher Shelbie Zuidema-Allen on hold for the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but all three teachers are hopeful the work will resume soon. Regardless, its impact continues. One of Pagano’s students has decided to work in special education as a career. Shelbie Zuidema-Allen, 17, plans to become a special education teacher.
Zuidema-Allen was placed on intensive probation after a fight with her mom, and started school at the ILC in 2018. When she heard about the opportunity to visit WoodsEdge, she was scared. “I didn’t know if I could handle it. I was afraid I would lash out on accident,” she said. “But as you get to know the kids, it gets easier.”

Eventually, teachers chose her to spend a full day at WoodsEdge every week. “I worked so well with the kids, and it made me realize I like helping people,” she said. “My experience there made me feel really good.”

Leslie, a WoodsEdge student, always gave Zuidema-Allen hugs and made sure to partner with her. Another student, J.J., never stopped smiling. “So, when you’re having a bad day, spending all morning doing math equations and getting half of them wrong, they make you happy to be there.”

Zuidema-Allen’s favorite memory of her time at WoodsEdge occurred during papermaking. “A little girl was low-key obsessed with glitter, so I made sure she had all the glitter she wanted during papermaking. It was a mess to clean up, but I didn’t care because it made her so happy.”

Zuidiema-Allen, who was truant when she started school at the ILC, realized she had a long road ahead if she wanted to finish her high school diploma and begin her post-secondary education. Once she completed probation, she decided to enroll in the Michigan Youth Challenge Academy and complete her high school diploma as quickly as possible. She graduated early and is currently completing her second semester at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. She plans to eventually transfer to Western, where she’ll complete her degree in special education. Someday, she hopes to teach at an alternative school like ILC or WoodsEdge.

“ILC and WoodsEdge shaped me into who I am and showed me what I want to do. You can’t replace the connections you make at an alternative school, or (at WoodsEdge.) I knew I was wanted there.”


On Tuesday, May 4, 2021, voters in the Kalamazoo RESA service area will be asked to vote on whether to renew a six-year, 1.5-mill property tax millage to help fund the costs of special education in our local schools. For more information, visit the FAQ on our website here.

To learn more about KRESA special education, visit