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Unsung hero: Jones honored for work with special education kids

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle - 7/7/2018

Sara Jones is one of Bozeman’s unsung heroes.

For 27 years she has worked with children in special education as a teacher and administrator, first in her native Texas and since 1996 in Montana.

“I love special education,” said Jones, 58. “I truly love children, working with children.”

Over the decades Jones has seen tremendous changes. Once children with Down syndrome, autism and other disabilities were segregated, hidden away in separate schools. Then special education students were “desegregated,” placed in classrooms within regular schools, but still effectively separate.

Today, special-ed kids are integrated into general education classrooms as much as possible, and it’s made a huge difference in children’s lives, Jones said.

Tears shone in her eyes as she recalled parents telling her their special-ed kids had never been invited to a birthday party.

Recently she talked with a mom who moved to Bozeman from California, where her son had been bullied and teased. The mother thanked her and said that today her boy is integrated into a general classroom and feels accepted and befriended.

Jones has worked since 2003 for the Bozeman School District, under special education director Chad Berg. She is the special education coordinator for preschool and elementary children, while Libby Child is the coordinator for high school students.

The Bozeman district has about 750 kids in special education at all levels, about 11 percent of all students, and about 75 special-ed teachers.

This spring the Montana Council of Administrators of Special Education honored Jones with its director’s award. Michelle Halberg, the Gallatin Madison Cooperative special education director, nominated Jones, writing that she had been “incredible” at building relationships with Head Start, Family Outreach, the state Office of Public Instruction and parents to educate children with special needs.

“Sara and special education coordinators like her are unsung heroes,” Halberg wrote. “She knows every student and every family in her care and supports the hard working special education teachers and specialists that are on her team.”

Berg wrote that Jones had a “passion” for helping the youngest, preschool children and had strengthened Bozeman’s special-ed program for 3- to 5-year-olds. He said she goes out of her way to meet families where they’re comfortable, treats them with dignity and respect, and builds trust.

“It is hard work, and Sara perseveres,” Berg wrote.

Jones’ own life has required a lot of perseverance. When she was just 6, her mother died, leaving five children. Her father left, so the kids were raised in Lubbock, Texas, by their grandparents, a nurse and oil lease seller. Her family’s heritage is French Basque, German and Cherokee.

“Those experiences have molded me,” she said. “I’m certainly not a quitter. I’m a survivor.”

She married at 16, dropped out of high school as a sophomore and by age 21 had two babies. Thirteen years after dropping out, she earned her GED. When her youngest started kindergarten, she started college.

“I knew in first grade I was going to be a teacher,” Jones said. “I just loved my teachers – they had a huge impact on my life.”

At Texas Tech she earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary and special education. She had worked with special-ed children in her son’s school and wanted to do her student teaching in a classroom for kids with emotional difficulties, but her proposal was denied. She went to the college dean, who said that wasn’t allowed because professors feared the challenge was so great, student teachers would get discouraged and quit.

“I said I’m going to get my sleeping bag and camp out on your doorstep until you give me permission,” Jones recalled. “He said, ‘OK, I’ll sign it.’ He could see I was serious and not shying away from children with issues.”

They may have challenging behaviors that impede their learning, she said, but “they’re great kids.”

In 1996, she moved to Montana for the fishing, hunting and skiing. She taught in Belgrade and Gardiner, and earned master’s degrees in elementary and high school administration from Montana State University.

When not teaching, she enjoys hanging out with the Belgrade Tiers and Liars, a group of guys who tie fishing flies in winter and in summer go fishing -- another endeavor that takes patience and persistence.

“Each child is different,” Jones said. “You have to meet them where they’re at, you have to understand what they’ve been through.

“I get frustrated sometimes, but I don’t get discouraged,” she said. “We can teach all children. We can teach every child.”

Sara Jones talks Friday at a Bozeman coffee shop about her career working with children in special education.

Gail Schontzler/Chronicle


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