Meet Sydney: A child with a physical, mental or emotional challenge gets custom support in Iowa public schools through special education services. More than 1 in 10 Iowa students faces these challenges. Meet Sydney, whose story reminds us that our commitment to equity enriches us all.

Sydney, a high school student at Howard-Winneshiek Community Schools in Cresco, is proud to be compared to a jungle tiger by her teacher, Alicia Martin.  “A jungle tiger is very strong and although they have scars and have been through things, it makes them stronger.  Just like Sydney, ” says Martin.

The jungle tiger reference was coined by Trevor Ragan, a leading expert on growth mindset. The focus on growth mindset and implementation of social emotional learning have been incredibly impactful for Sydney and other students. “Sydney has learned that it’s okay to fail forward– that she can keep trying,” added Terese Jurgensen, Director of Student Services and Special Education. “We know that kids want to do well and will do well if they can. Our job is to find out what is getting in their way. We’re changing the brain to take control of learning.”

“When I was younger I would hide a lot or shut down completely, sometimes snap at teachers,” Sydney said. “My friends have noticed that I’ve become more open and more talkative. My grades are As and Bs most of the time.” Martin noted, “Sydney used to come to class with her arms crossed, refusing to speak. Now she is emerging as a leader – speaking up politely to tell others to pay attention in class.  The change has been dramatic.”

You can’t help but feel inspired when stepping into Martin’s classroom. It is cloaked in positivity. Martin stressed, “we remind kids to assess the size of the problem and meet it with an equal reaction and response. They are in control of their behavior.”

Sydney’s teachers say she may be the next Temple Grandin, a noted animal expert and advocate for people with autism. Sydney has a passion for animals and enjoys caring for rabbits, dogs and cats at home. Sydney said, “I love observing animals and their behavior, and how animals communicate.” When the school acquired Howie, a therapy dog in-training, Sydney was the first to bring him toys and treats. “Sydney is really good at training. She helps with Howie a lot!” said Martin.

Despite previously having five Individualized Education Plan goals, Sydney scored well beyond proficient in reading, writing, math and science on her most recent Iowa Assessments.  Sydney’s mom, Shanda, beamed when talking about the changes and growth she has seen in Sydney, both academically and socially, “she’s been at the honor level as a whole and is so much more comfortable talking in class and telling us about her day at school. It was wonderful to see her celebrate and high five her relay teammates at a track meet!”

As for Sydney’s journey? Sydney wants to investigate working with animals as a veterinarian or training therapy animals. “Sydney definitely has the perseverance and effort to pursue her dreams of working with animals.” said Jurgensen.  “We are all so proud of her and can’t wait to see what her future brings.”

Share This Story!