Marisa Rosenblatt firmly believes that all children should be fully included in education, regardless of ability. The sensory garden and rock path within Leona Cox Community School in Canyon Country – and the honor she received from her peers – indicates she has support.
Rosenblatt, a pre-kindergarten teacher specializing in mild to moderate disabilities, led the building of a sensory garden to help her kids learn about the smells, sights and textures of various plants, but it ended up helping everyone better understand that all children are entitled to the same educational opportunities.
As a result, her fellow teachers selected Rosenblatt as her school’s Santa Clarita Valley Education Foundation teacher of the year. Her principal said the vote was close to unanimous.
“I’m a preschool teacher on an elementary school campus,” she said. “I didn’t expect it. Preschool is different. I was very touched.”
Rosenblatt, 38, has a master’s degree in early childhood special education and aspires to be an inclusion specialist in a state preschool program. She overcame learning disabilities dyslexia (reading disorder), dysgraphia (difficulty learning how to write) and dyscalculia (informally known as “math dyslexia”).
She has been at Leona Cox for 11 years, and she said it has the Sulphur Springs School District’s largest special-education population.
She said she was hired specifically to increase the amount of inclusion between the special-education kids and the typically developing ones, but desire only goes so far. Teachers have to be trained in how to seamlessly integrate children with special needs into the regular curricula; and money, or lack of it, is always a factor.
Rosenblatt knew there used to be a garden on campus that was built by an Eagle Scout, but it had lain dormant for many years. She decided a sensory garden would work. It would include garden beds, a sensory hopscotch pit and a sensory wall, among other features.
The project got a real boost last year after the Saugus High shooting. Life Scout Tyler Nilson got a group of classmates to volunteer with the designing and building of it as part of his Eagle Scout project.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony took place last year. There are three raised garden beds that grow various flowers, plants and bushes to help kids use their senses of smell and touch. The largest bed is the “mini-orchard” that grows fruits.
The sensory wall features all kinds of fabrics and toys that introduce kids to various textures and help develop fine-motor skills and hand-eye coordination. It also helps children relax when their minds focus on one sense.
Rosenblatt also got a bunch of rocks donated and turned them into a painted path in a dirt patch near the front of the school. Each teacher received enough rocks for each student. While the students painted, they were given a questionnaire with the theme, “What makes you, you?” Students paired up and answered one question based on a die roll. She said she hopes the project becomes perpetual.
The garden opened early this year, and its effect went beyond the intended group of kids. A group of fifth and sixth graders regularly work in the garden. Others just go sit there and relax.
“You would assume they would screw with it, but they find peace,” Rosenblatt said.
Many of them visit her class during recess or lunch and ask why her kids behave the way they do, or what disability they have. She calmly explains, and then they later bring a friend and explain what they learned.
The end result is more kids have an understanding of such conditions as autism, which breeds acceptance and understanding.
Principal Heather Drew said she’s a believer in a proactive approach, so if some older kids are having trouble, they can go to Rosenblatt’s class and work with her kids by acting like role models.
The end result is the behavior changes. Drew told of four fifth-grade girls who took turns being mean and alienating to each other. After Drew put them in Rosenblatt’s class, they not only helped the pre-kindergartners, they learned how to respect and trust each other.
“If we saw an issue, by providing a positive opportunity, that’s when we’d pull Marisa in,” Drew said. “They pay it forward by being a role model.”
Rosenblatt’s fellow teachers noticed. When it came time to vote for a teacher of the year, an honor the SCV Education Foundation bestows on one teacher in each of the 53 area public schools, she got almost every vote, Drew said. Only the teachers vote; the administration has nothing to do with it.
The principal even devised a creative way to tell Rosenblatt that she’d won. At a staff meeting, she told everyone she had given everyone the same gift, so everyone should open his or her gift bags at the same time.
Everyone pulled out a white T-shirt, except Rosenblatt, whose shirt was black. Drew even recorded the moment. At first, Rosenblatt looked confused, but then it dawned on her as many shrieked in delight.
“She’s a great person overall,” Drew said. “She cares about her kids, and her (kids’) parents.”