Class of her own

Six-year-old faces challenges to thrive in first grade

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First grade can be a big challenge.

Transitions into more rigorous academic work, higher expectations for behavior and a more dynamic classroom environment make it an exciting and difficult year. For many children, first grade can be the biggest hurdle they have faced in their young lives.

For Ellie Zwak, a first-grader at Strawberry Park Elementary School, challenges and hurdles are nothing new.

Six-year-old Ellie overcame open-heart surgery, a cardiac arrest and weeks in the hospital when she was 8 months old.

At that time, doctors told her parents, Audrey and Shawn Zwak of Steamboat Springs, that Ellie had a 1 percent chance of living.

The surgery patched a hole in Ellie's heart that was caused by a disorder called Tetralogy of Fallot. Because of oxygen loss to her brain during the cardiac arrest, Ellie is legally blind and has difficulty developing muscle tone.

After using a wheelchair her entire life, she began to walk independently last month.

On Sunday, the Steamboat Pilot & Today told the story of the trauma six years ago and how Ellie came home with her family for Christmas. On Monday, the newspaper looked at the therapy Ellie does to improve her motor skills and cognition and at the remarkable leaps she is making. Today's installment, the last of three, examines how Ellie is meeting the challenges of first grade.

Small changes, big results

In Christine Gautreaux's first-grade class, "Polar Express Day" was a big hit.

Students read the holiday children's book -- about a boy who takes a Christmas Eve train ride to the North Pole while wearing his pajamas -- earlier in the month, and they got to wear their pajamas to school and watch "The Polar Express" movie Dec. 20, one of the last days of school before winter vacation.

Ellie wore a soft red shirt and red flannel pants decorated with snowmen, but she had difficulty watching the movie.

Her vision is about 20/200, her parents and aides at the elementary school said. That is the cut-off point for legal blindness, which means that for her to identify an object that someone with 20/20 vision could identify from 20 feet away, Ellie needs to be as close as two feet to the object.

Audrey Zwak said Ellie doesn't wear corrective lenses because her vision impairment is not caused by faulty eyes, but mostly by a difficulty processing visual information in her brain.

Ellie's family, teachers and aides at Strawberry Park are finding creative ways to help her learn.

During "The Polar Express" movie, for example, Gautreaux gave Ellie a model train to hold and play with, so she could have a tangible idea of the action she was hearing.

When the class wove strips of colored paper together for a recent art project, Gautreaux helped Ellie make a vertical, three-dimensional weave that Ellie could feel.

Paraprofessional and aide Emily Schwall, who has worked with Ellie for about a year, said those examples are two of many.

"Christine's amazing -- she gets so involved with (Ellie)," said Schwall, who took a seminar-style class about visual impairment through the University of Northern Colorado last year.

In school last week, Schwall and Ellie sat down with a sheet of paper covered in removable pairs of different-colored, textured materials.

"Smooth, sticky, scratchy, soft," Ellie said as she moved her hand across the materials.

"We're working on textures and left-to-right movement," Schwall said.

They're also working on a new song.

"OK, Mike, now watch this," Ellie said proudly to a reporter before naming each material to the tune of "Brown Bear," a children's song.

"Smooth bear, smooth bear, what do you see ..." she sang with a smile.

"She's so auditory," Gaut-reaux said. "We try to sing everything."

Raising awareness

Strawberry Park has a policy of inclusion for its special and severe needs students, meaning that those students are in the classroom as much as possible to participate in activities with their classmates.

The school's vision statement encourages diversity and "an atmosphere of respect, pride, cooperation, compassion, empathy and sensitivity." Schwall said Ellie's role in her class and relationship with other students help to fulfill that statement.

"They're so compassionate and so great with her," Schwall said. "We have first-graders who are very aware (of disabilities)."

Like any first-grader, Ellie has some tough days. On the last day of school before winter vacation, she broke into tears and went home early after holiday parties because the energetic, festive atmosphere proved overwhelming.

"She was exhausted," Schwall said, citing a long week that began with an all-day trip to Denver for doctor appointments.

Audrey Zwak said the good days outnumber the bad for Ellie, who has made many friends in school this year.

Several boys in Ellie's class gave her Christmas presents.

"There's a lot of kids who champion her," Zwak said.

One of those children is Malcolm Pitzer-Ritter, a fifth-grader who has helped Ellie get on and off the school bus in her wheelchair since the beginning of the school year. On a chilly day after school last week, Malcolm pushed Ellie in her chair from the school's front entrance to the bus, then patiently backed the chair onto the lift, and, with help from Schwall, he steadied the chair while it rose.

The kindness is apparently a two-way street.

"Ellie says she helps Malcolm every day," said 13-year-old Hannah Zwak, Ellie's sister.

Leading the way

When Ellie's family, doctors and teachers talk about her personality, they talk about a lively, active girl who loves to sing, works hard at school and in therapy, and sees no difference between her physical abilities and those of other people.

"She had everybody scoot to the gym with her one time when she was line leader," Hannah said. "She said: 'Come on everybody, grab your walkers and line up!'"

Ellie's mother laughed at the story.

"I think sometimes Ellie wonders what all the hooplah is about," Audrey Zwak said.

"Some families will say they're sorry for Ellie or that she breaks their heart," she added. "But you know, we've never felt sorry at all -- we're so blessed by her."

-- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203 or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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