A Dynamic Duo: How One Day at a Time Turned into a Decade for a Para and Student - from The Messenger
Though she only has one job title, Bev Potter has myriad jobs.
Over the last 10 years, Potter has found herself to be an author, a reader, a prom date, costume designer, dancer, singer and crafter, to name a few. Fort Dodge Community School District calls her a paraeducator, but to Adam Plautz, she’s simply been a helpful friend.
“He gets me to do things I normally wouldn’t do,” she said.
Potter said it’s not so much the variation of tasks in a day that make it go by quickly, but the smile and laughter on the job site that have made the passing days count while dedicated to helping Plautz, who has Angelman Syndrome, in school for the last decade.
As Plautz, 21, prepares to graduate from Fort Dodge Senior High, his paraeducator, 66, prepares for retirement — a transition into a new chapter of life for both. Soon, both will walk together through the frame of the school’s front door for the last time.
“He’s quite the kid,” Potter said pensively on her lunch break, reflecting on the last but not least job of her career.
“Quite the young man,” she added, correcting herself as she remembered the 11-year-old she started with is now 21.
Since Plautz was in middle school, they’ve both been a constant in each others lives, even more so than the teachers. But even for a para and a student, a 10-year relationship is unusually long.
“Bev really was a piece of (Adam’s) educational journey,” said Dr. Jesse Ulrich, district superintendent. “They had a really special bond.”
In a district where recruiting paraeducators can often be difficult, Ulrich said Potter’s 10-year tenure shows a “true level of commitment on her part and love for children.”
Though she applied not knowing if the job was right for her, it only took one day of meeting Plautz for Potter to realize it was a good fit.
After graduating from high school, the Fort Dodge native spent two years at Concordia College in Minnesota before deciding that being a teacher wasn’t for her.
After working in the corporate world, handling environmental records with a private contractor for the Environmental Protection Agency, Potter moved back home to take care of her mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s — an experience that she said prepared her to work with children with special needs.
“She couldn’t read or write at the end,” Potter said of her highly-educated mother. “I found out how to work with people in that way.”
While Plautz is non-verbal, a component of the intellectual disability that deleted his 15th chromosome, Potter has worked with him to read and communicate to the best of his ability using an iPad system formulated with the help of the local area education agency.
“He understands everything you’re saying to him, but since he’s non-verbal, it’s hard to get out what he wants to say,” said mother Beth Plautz.
Using the iPad, Potter has helped the student work out that frustration. Now, Adam Plautz can say anything from “how are you?” a response she programmed to help him engage with the passing students in the hall, to “Alexa, play Garth Brooks.”
Using his iPad’s voice, he asks Alexa, the popular voice-controlled virtual assistant in Amazon Echo devices, to play Garth Brooks in the car just about every day. In the car, Potter or someone else acts as his “Alexa.”
“When he really wants something, he goes for it,” Potter chuckled.
Using pictures, written words and Potter’s voice reading the words aloud, social stories crafted by Potter on the iPad have helped Adam Plautz understand everything from the difference between “need” and “want” to the sudden death of his dog or his parents going on vacation. Soon they’ll need to write a social story on the retirement and graduation that will separate them a little bit more than they’re used to. With a gallery of photos to choose from, that story will be a harder and more emotional one to write.
Together, Potter has read books like the Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl series to him. She knows he listens, quizzing him at the end of readings with questions on the white board and corresponding multiple-choice answers. At the end of ”Marley and Me,” he closed the book, refusing to let her read the ending after his dog, Bandit, died.
It’s a different picture than what his mother saw when he received the Angelman Syndrome diagnosis 18 years ago.
“(The doctor) showed me pictures. Then, the pictures were in a black and white book,” Beth Plautz said. “It looked like they were in an institution. … I was in shock.”
At first, she said they felt alone. Today, statistics estimate that about 1 in 59 children will be diagnosed with autism. For Angelman Syndrome, that number jumps to 1 in about 20,000.
Now, her son lives life in full color thanks to his paraeducator. Potter has been there for the important moments that capture, in full color, who Adam Plautz is, from being his date to the prom to taking his picture in a Halloween costume as Mr. Gary, his favorite bus driver.
“Bev just showed Adam that he could do these things,” Beth Plautz said. “Bev makes sure he’s not segregated and that he’s included.”
But what’s more is that by being visible to others and included in school activities, his mom said both he and Potter have inspired others, by their relationship, to go into special education — a gift that will give life to education long after her retirement.
“We joke that more people know him than know us,” said father Dennis Plautz, CEO of the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance. “Everywhere you go, people know him because he’s got that magnetic personality.”
Sure enough, aided by an infectious, ear-to-ear grin and laugh, not a stroll in the hall goes by at school without a “hi, Adam!” from a passing student.
The district currently has about 120 paraeducators playing a significant role in facilitating education for the district’s roughly 300 teachers. Ulrich is hopeful that changes with the Every Student Succeeds Act, the President Obama-era replacement for the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind, will relax requirements for paraeducators, opening recruitment to a wider pool.
“Our paraeducators provide a level of care and attention to our students that is inspiring,” said Staci Laird, principal at Fort Dodge Senior High. “Bev and our other paraeducators are part of the heart and soul of our school, but they are often the unsung heroes.”
She said that often, people don’t know that the role exists or how rewarding it can be — as was the case with Potter 10 years ago. Ulrich said it seems like the district is constantly in need of paraeducators, though there’s no replacing someone like Potter.
“No is not in her vocabulary,” Beth Plautz said. “She has become part of our family because she cares about him so much, always thinking of new ways to help him learn.”
“People don’t understand the commitment some of the paraeducators make,” said Dennis Plautz. “Unless you have a child with disabilities, you don’t understand the value that our school system plays in this.”
As Adam Plautz prepares for the next chapter of his life, Laird said Potter has helped with the transition to a day program after graduation at Friendship Haven.
But as the sun sets on their school relationship, Potter doesn’t think she can quit him.
“I can’t just go cold turkey on this kid, he means too much to me. I can’t imagine not having him in my life somehow,” she said. “I’ll always be there for him.”
Part of that may be because after all these years, she realized she’s learned as much from her student as he learned from her. Both have managed to bring out the best in each other.
“His life is more one day at a time,” Potter said. “I think that’s one of the big things he taught me: take life one day at a time and enjoy it.”
It’s an apt life lesson at retirement, something she planned to coincide with Adam Plautz’s graduation, that took her perhaps an entire career to realize in earnest.