HJ/EDJune 5, 2006

Lona Jose retiring after 30 years in special education

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Lona Jose of Dassel expects not only to keep her fingers in her flower garden now that she is retiring Friday, June 30, from the special education cooperative, but also “keep fingers” in programs for adults with disabilities.

Jose, director of the Meeker and Wright Special Education Cooperative, started in special education in 1971 only to make herself more marketable as a teacher. She had majored in education with an emphasis in social studies and history at Moorhead State University, she said.

Once she got into teaching mentally disabled students and deaf and hard of hearing students, “I knew I wanted to stay in special education,” Jose said.

Jose loved the challenge of how to make students with disabilities into successes. She also has been astounded at all the changes that have occurred in special education since laws giving special ed students rights in a “full sense” were passed in 1975, she said.

Jose remembers before she finished school and worked at the Fergus Falls State Hospital, how residents had lived there for decades, she said.

Now disabled students and adults live out in the communities, especially in the Cokato area. They attend the same schools and sporting events, and live in homes, either with their families, independently or with groups, Jose said.

“This community really puts their arms around adults with disabilities,” she said.

When Jose and her husband, Charlie, moved to the area, she taught mentally disabled students as a long term substitute in Litchfield. Later, she worked with deaf and hard of hearing students in the Howard Lake and Waverly area. At that time it was common to keep disabled students out of school until the second grade, she said.

Students were bussed to classes outside their own school districts or were kept in separate classrooms within the school building, Jose added.

Also, deaf children were expected to go to school in Faribault, live there during the week, and come home only for the weekends, she added.

Now, instead of waiting for students to be old enough to start second grade, teachers start working with parents of a disabled child two weeks after birth, if the child has been referred, Jose said.

Early intervention makes an enormous difference, she said.

For a deaf infant, for example, parents have the option of choosing cochlear implants, sign language or sound amplification for the baby, she said.

The change in federal and state laws also allow parents to work with teachers and other agencies as a team. That’s when Jose was hired by the cooperative in 1979, she said.

The special education cooperative coordinates seven school districts in the Highways 12 and 55 area. Buffalo was a member of the co-op originally. Buffalo has grown so large, however, it formed its own co-op, Jose said.

Don Loe was the first director of the co-op and was instrumental in coordinating counties, school districts, state agencies, employers, technicians and parents into teams, she said.

The co-op had about 10 staff members at first. Now it has 90, she said.

“More heads are better than one,” Jose said.

Eventually, Jose became supervisor for direct services and in 1998, director of the co-op.

Jose said the Dassel Cokato area is very welcoming. “Now kids are very integrated,” she said.

Another big change since 1975 is the emphasis on getting students ready for adulthood and employment. The team and parents have to consider living arrangements and transportation for the soon-to-be-adults, she said.

Overall, the progress in the skills of students has been exciting and amazing, Jose said. She credits Kevin Dahlman of Cokato for his help and support also. He has been the chairman of the co-op board for the past 19 years, she said.

The co-op now has four learning sites, Village Ranch, a Maple Lake residence, and two day sites, Cornerstone in Buffalo, and in Rockford, she said.

Learning disabilities in reading, math and written language is the category most prevalent for Dassel Cokato disabled students. The number of students involved in the co-op in the two-county area has remained the same, but the students have more complex needs, Jose said.

The greatest challenge has been getting the funding so there are enough staff members to provide all the needed services, she said.

Jose’s 35 years in special education have been satisfying. “This area is a great place to work,” she said.

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