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By: Laura Summers |  April 28, 2020

It is a Wednesday afternoon and class is in session at Paths to Independence in Bartlesville. The teacher is teaching and the students are responding, but it is not business as usual.

The lesson is coming in on a Facebook live video with the teacher in one place and the students at their homes. This is the reality of education during a global pandemic in which school doors are closed. The process of distance learning is challenging for all students. For those who attend Paths to Independence school, which offers education and support to students with autism spectrum disorders, it has been difficult to be away from routines, familiar staff and friends.

“Distance learning has been a challenge for all of us involved, teachers, students, and parents,” PTI teacher Michella Gramley said. “We are trying out new roles and routines that our students can be slow to adapt to. We have established a semi-smooth process of getting the work to the parents and students using PowerPoint slides and emails, but it’s far from perfect.”

In a usual April, the nonprofit Paths to Independence would be carrying out lessons for its students at the school building located on east Frank Phillips Boulevard, planning activities for their families and raising recognition of their programs as a part of Autism Awareness Month. This year’s PTI April fundraiser, the Light it Up Blue 5k run and fun walk, was moved to a virtual format.

Angela Hindman, whose 17-year-old daughter Emma Weiss attends Paths to Independence, has high praise for PTI and its programs — both before and during the pandemic.

“Distance learning with PTI has been just amazing,” Hindman said. “I wasn’t sure initially how it would go. Teaching online is difficult under any circumstances, but when you have the added challenges of autism it is a daunting task.”

Hindman said PTI has sent easily accessible weekly plans for each subject in which Emma is enrolled. For language arts class, students are completing a novel study on the book “Heat” with assignments involving reading a chapter and answering questions in Google classroom.

Math lessons are completed in a self-paced online program called “Teaching Textbooks”, and science lessons include daily readings with questions to be answered.

“She has short exercise videos on YouTube along with a 20-minute walk around the neighborhood for P.E.,” Hindman said. “For music, her teacher sends a video lesson on music in Africa, which she especially enjoys. For job skills, she has choices for tasks such as cleaning the counters, sweeping the floor, heating food in the microwave, putting away clean clothes, etc. In communication, she has enjoyed taking several scavenger hunt walks around the neighborhood.

“I am especially impressed with how PTI is able to challenge her academically while still providing the life skills training she needs. It is invaluable.”

Weiss is able to attend Paths to Independence with financial assistance provided by Opportunity Scholarship Fund. The fund provides scholarships to help students afford tuition at 67 accredited private schools in Oklahoma.

“Generous donors enable OSF to provide scholarships to Emma and other students with autism to attend Paths to Independence,” OSF Executive Director Rob Sellers said. “PTI offers focused, tailored teaching, and we’re proud to empower Oklahoma families who need assistance sending their children to the schools best suited to their needs.”

Tailoring lessons has not been as easy for math teacher Gramley and other instructors during the COVID-19 shutdown, but they are making the best effort with Zoom meetings and parental assistance. Typically the students have a lot of hands-on classroom work they complete at school. During distance learning, parents don’t have all of the materials used at the school, but they are improvising using items they have at home, Gramley said.

“Some of our kids are doing their work independently just like they would in class and are truly showing how much they’ve matured and grown in the last few years,” Gramley said. “Our parents are doing a great job of keeping their spirits up and doing their best to engage their kids in the new activities we have created.”

The day-to-day rapport between students and their teachers has been a part of Paths to Independence since 2011 when founder Clair Bartley opened the school in Bartlesville. There were just two students that first year. Enrollment continued to grow until PTI became a prekindergarten through 12th grade educational institution.

In 2017 students and teachers moved into the former Will Rogers Elementary School building on east Frank Phillips Boulevard. This school year PTI completed the process of buying the building to serve as a permanent home.

As a parent, Hindman is thrilled to have PTI in Bartlesville for Emma. For the past three years, the school has provided a place where her daughter is challenged, loved and thriving, Hindman said.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, that care has continued during the shutdown.

“Emma has said many times how much she misses going to school,” Hindman said.

“Her teachers have a weekly Zoom meeting for each subject, and she loves that. It brings tears to my eyes to see how happy she and her classmates are to see each other in a Zoom meeting. It is a common misconception that people with autism don’t form friendships or care to socialize. The students at PTI are very bonded to each other and miss each other very much. I am grateful to her teachers for leading these virtual meetings so the kids can stay in touch.”

Staff members agree that separation has been tough.

“I’m very proud of how everyone has accepted and adapted to the current situation, but I can’t wait until we can reopen and I get to see my kids,” Gramley said. 

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