BELEN–In a year when “normal” has gone by the wayside, a local elementary school is making sure a special needs student is getting everything he needs to be safe as he continues on his journey of success.
“There is so much negativity. People are so quick to say, ‘Oh this school got a D or an F.’ The whole reason for this is to recognize there are really great teachers and principals out there to be the support system your child needs,” said parent Christina Oselio, of Belen. “I cannot explain what that has done for Julian.”
At 11 years old with cerebral palsy, Julian has a lot of challenges, among them a compromised immune system. Oselio, his stepmother, says he hasn’t been sick for a very long time, so having him return to in-person teaching, even part-time in a hybrid model, is a risk.
“He has progressed so much. In the last six months walking by himself, we’re teaching him to feed himself and he’s holding a sippy cup,” she said. “He walks himself to his bedroom, recognizes that path, to take his own nap. He’s done that every single day for the last three weeks. It used to be something he’d do a couple times a week.”
Oselio attributes Julian’s progress to his special education teacher at Rio Grande Elementary, Xiaojuan Liu. Affectionately known to parents and staff at the school as Miss Mary, Liu not only instructs Julian via Zoom but agreed to meet with him one-on-one, in-person on Wednesdays when the school is closed to students for deep cleaning.
“A few weeks ago, we asked her if we could get Julian in on Wednesdays when there are no other kids and not a lot of staff, and Miss Mary was on top of it,” Oselio said. “Ms. (Margaret) Manning gave the go ahead and we literally started that Wednesday. This school has done amazing things with him; his support system is beyond belief.”
While is his with Liu, Julian receives speech and physical therapy, she said, and he has started occupational therapy with Sunshine Therapy.
“They’ve been wonderful, too,” she said. “They are going above and beyond making sure he is the only child in there.”
Julian has been attending RGE since he was 3, Principal Margaret Manning said. She said Liu, who has a master’s degree in special education, asked if she could see Julian one-on-one on Wednesdays and make sure he received his therapies then as well.
“We did not expect him to come back for hybrid. In the past, his immune system has been compromised,” Manning said. “For these kinds of situations, we look at each student on a case-by-case basis. Right now, he is the only one that has a true compromised immune system; he’s been in the hospital several times. We looked at this as a special case and we needed to do that.”
Manning said the school is bringing in students who are doing remote only learning on Wednesdays to do testing for services such as speech therapy.
The special education position Liu has is very hard to fill, the principal said.
“She has done a fabulous job and now that she has the (educational assistants) that are willing to do whatever is needed with the children, it’s a very positive environment for them,” she said. “She has been wonderful for our students; she is a very loving, articulate woman.”
Before she became a teacher, Liu was an attorney focusing on women’s rights law. She pursued a degree in special education because she often wondered if her son received the best education possible, saying she thought he might have undiagnosed ADHD.
“I always spent time focused on my son — why? Why couldn’t he control his emotions and behavior?” Liu would ask. “I wanted to learn how I could build up a relationship with my son; I wanted to know my son.”
After she graduated from the University of New Mexico, Liu wanted to give back since both she and her son, who is also now a teacher, benefited from education.
“First, I wanted give back no matter who — Julian or another student,” she said. “If we are remote through Zoom, it doesn’t work. I also thought for his mom and stepmom, since March, things might have been overwhelming when we were just doing remote.”
Liu has also taught Julian basic sign language for words like eat, drink and more, but since he also has visual limitations, it’s nearly impossible to work with him through a computer screen.
Teaching Julian is something Liu is more than happy to do but says she doesn’t do it alone.
“Ms. Manning is wonderful. If she doesn’t support us, we can’t do anything. Her supporting me creates a chance for us for student learning,” she said. “That’s my job. I want to do that for my students.”
Liu also thanked her educational assistants, Elizabeth Barela and Christina Marentes, for being a huge part of the success she has with Julian and other students.
“It’s them and Ms. Manning. If I lack one part, I can’t do this,” she said. “I can’t do this by myself. We are a team in my classroom and need collaborative, positive support.”
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.