School helps child with special needs adapt
10/9/12 Second grader Joey Hitzeman wheels the line others toe during P.E. class at Lyons School in Glenview on Tuesday. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 18, 2012 3:11PM
GLENVIEW — For 7-year-old Joey Hitzeman, cerebral palsy doesn’t affect his ability to live and enjoy life to the fullest.
Flashing a contagious smile, the second grader happily zips around the hallways of Lyon Elementary School
in his motorized wheelchair, which he controls by turning his head in the direction he wants to go.
As his classmates dashed from their life skills class to the ever-popular lunch period on the afternoon of Oct. 9, Hitzeman was right in the mix as he cruised down the hallway toward the lunch room.
“He’s a real happy guy,” said Karen Hitzeman, Joey’s mom. “He’s at as high of an academic level as the other students, but he just needs the right tools.”
Each physical limitation caused by Hitzeman’s condition is met with a solution by District 34, which provides a host of special needs services that allow the youngster to participate in every activity his classmates partake in throughout the day, from riding the school bus in the morning with friends to kicking the soccer ball during gym class.
Karen Hitzeman is actively involved in assuring that all the resources needed for her son to have a normal school life flow seamlessly.
She stays in close contact with Ana Stocker, his special needs teacher, who works in conjunction with his classroom teacher Antonette Bitoni to make sure Hitzeman has everything he needs to learn at the same pace of his classmates and experience a normal school day.
Two major conditions of Hitzeman’s cerebral palsy are a verbal impairment that causes him to read at a slower pace than his peers and an inability to use his hands to write. The school provides simple tools such as books with enlarged text and more high-tech solutions like a handless computer system that reads aloud and allows Hitzeman to type out words by selecting them verbally.
For gym class, an adaptive physical education teacher comes to the school each week and suggests ways to modify the activities so that Hitzeman can participate.
During the first week of October when the second-graders were learning how to throw the javelin, Hitzeman practiced along with his classmates with his own version of the javelin, a lighter tube-shaped object.
The opportunity for Hitzeman to enjoy a regular school day despite his physical limitations is the result of a district-wide special education program designed to integrate students with many types of disabilities into a typical school day.
Working with The Northern Suburban Special Education District, the District 34 special education department offers physical and occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, orientation and mobility, and social work, psychological and vision/hearing services.
The Hitzeman family left Chicago Public Schools to move to Glenview several years ago so Joey could attend school in District 34.
“At District 34 the philosophy is that you do whatever it takes to meet the needs of every child,” Karen said. “As a mom I feel lucky to have my child in school here.”
Although Hitzeman is equipped with many of the tools he needs for successful academic life and a happy social experience at school, challenges still arise.
His immune system doesn’t fight off infections as well as a completely healthy child, and last year Hitzeman came down with strep throat nine times, Karen said.
“It’s difficult when he gets sick because sometimes complications arise,” Karen said. “He gets hit harder than a completely healthy kid would.”
Next year Hitzeman will leave the comfort of Lyon School after three years and attend Pleasant Ridge, where his older brother Will is in the fourth grade.
His twin brother Peter also will attend third grade at Pleasant Ridge.
Although this school year has barely begun, Karen, a licensed attorney who stopped practicing to care for Joey, is already planning for the big move to the new school, where she’s been introducing herself to staff and teachers and ensuring that the special needs resources at Lyon follow him to Pleasant Ridge.
Meanwhile Hitzeman, an avid Chicago Bears fan whose favorite subjects are music and lunch, is taking in every action-packed minute of the second-grade with a big smile on his face.
“He’s a real popular kid, and all the girls like him,” Bitoni said. “He gets more hugs than anyone in the class.”