Educating kids with special needs and learning disabilities can be difficult.
They take more time and attention — which many teachers never seem to have enough of. But one Oregon mom has developed a remarkably simple and effective program.
The idea is that kids earn points for doing well — they can use those points to buy toys for themselves or gifts for others.
“The Shadow Project” is thought to be the only nonprofit of its kind in the country. And it’s growing.
This week, the charitable foundation Social Venture Partners will announce a major grant to help take the program beyond Portland. Allison Frost checked out some places where the Shadow Project has been helping turn kids around.
Terry Knab: "Let me have my 4th graders over here please."
Terry Knab’s kids love earning their Shadow bucks. They buy things like stuffed animals, pencils, books, and presents for their parents. Today this Woodstock elementary class in SE Portland is getting a visit from the Shadow Project founder Christy Scatterella.
More exciting though is the fact that her 18-year-old son Alex is here.
Alex: "I’m here today to talk about uh, learning disabilities and growing up with them and how it’s been hard in school for me."
And he’s brought the Garfield toy that explains how the project came to be named after the family dog.
Alex: "So this is Garfield after Shadow…."
Kid: "Tore him to pieces?"
Alex: "Yeah, pretty much. And then when I brought Garfield home to show my mom I set it down and then Shadow got a hold of it and started ripping it to pieces. And then I showed my mom and she was like oh we can just get another one. And I was like, that’s not the same. Does anyone know why it’s not the same?"
Girl: "Because you earned it?"
Alex: "That’s right. Um , and and it feels a lot better to earn something than to be just given it."
Christy Scatterella: "That was a light bulb moment."
Scatterella says within a few months of that moment she and Alex created The Shadow Project. It was essentially the kind of formalized token economy that teachers had been doing on their own for years — but with little or no structure or support.
Ironically, most of the kids served by the Shadow Project are not like Scatterella’s son Alex, well off with lots of advantages. They’re more like the low income kids who attend Pioneer School.
Since the school started using the Shadow Project, attendance is up at Parent Teacher nights like this one. Scatterella describes the first Pioneer teacher to apply.
Christy Scatterella: "And he immediately started telling us about one of his students, named Kaylun. And this was a boy who was in 5th grade. He did not know his ABCs. He frequently skipped school and he often got in fights with others. Well, this teacher Rich Brisco started the Shadow project and within 6 weeks, Kaylun received attention at a school wide assembly, he got an award for perfect attendance and behavior. And a few months later, he picked up a Dr. Seuss book (chokes up) and he started to read."
Scatterella has countless moving stories. Those motivate her. But she’s also kept at the Shadow Project for 10 years because she believes it can make a real difference in the high school drop out rate.
Nationwide, a third of kids who drop out have learning disabilities.
Jessica Bruder: "It is a simple concept. And it’s just amazing that it really does work so well."
Jessica Bruder teaches at Pioneer Special School.
Jessica Bruder: "And so for example if one student is having an issue or acting out, trying to draw in other students and draw them off task, I’ll go around and reward those students who are staying on task with Pioneer bucks so that they can be positively reinforced at that moment for ignoring peer distractions and ignoring peer negativity and taking care of themselves."
Bruder says the Shadow Project has been invaluable to her as a special ed teacher.
11-year-old Shawn is in 5th grade at Pioneer.
Shawn: "And these are our desks."
Allison Frost: "Which one’s your desk?"
Shawn: "The messy one. The one with all the stuff on it."
Allison Frost: "It has some drawings. Tell me what’s on this desk."
Shawn: "Well, I did that boat today at art."
He tells me his dad doesn’t make it to school meetings much. Tonight, his says tonight a Pioneer coach named Brandon took him to Parent Teacher night.
Shawn: "He’s one of the coaches where he helps out kids if they have bad times."
Allison Frost: "Have you had some bad times?"
Shawn: "Yeah, I went to the coaches’ room once, well a lot more than once. I haven’t been doing it in the last 2 or 3 weeks."
Allison Frost: "That’s great, what happens do you think that makes you go to the coaches’ room?"
Shawn: "Well people can make you really mad and you’ll just be really mad and then they’ll have to escort you to the coaches’ room or sometimes you’ll just be willing to go."
Allison Frost: "How does it make you feel when you have to do that?"
Shawn: "Sad. Especially when they put you in the little room."
And this is the Shadow store over here.
When I ask Shawn what he’s bought from the Shadow store he says a little alien for his dad and something for his aunt.
Shawn: "I got her a little heart necklace with a little stud on it. Where you’re supposed to buy more studs with the birthstones. And uh, you put em on, the necklace."
Allison Frost: "How did she react when you gave it to her?"
Shawn: "She really liked it and she still wears it. She wears it every day."
Allison Frost: "She wears it every day? That must make you feel good."
Shawn: "Yeah, it does."
Shadow Project founder Christy Scatterella says it’s that power of giving that’s transformative. The Shadow Project warehouse holds three categories of donated things: there’s plenty of school supplies and toys; but mostly it’s gifts for the kids to give away.
Christy Scatterella: "Because when you think about it, who are the powerful, successful people in our society? Givers! They get buildings named after them. They come from the North Pole once a year and they make millions of children happy. Givers are important, successful people."
The $34,000 grant by Social Venture Partners will bring the Shadow Project’s merchandizing and distribution system into the computer age. It will also help the organization seek permanent funding to bring the program to other parts of Oregon.
When the time is right, Christy Scatterella says, the Shadow Project will be ready for teachers and kids all over the country.