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Just as important: Syble Hopp, a place of belonging

By Heather Graves
Staff Writer

DE PERE – For five decades, Syble Hopp has sought to be a place where students with intellectual and other developmental disabilities feel like they belong.

“I cannot say enough about Syble Hopp,” Julie Taylor, mom of 19-year-old Preston, who has attended for the past 11 years, said. “The staff is absolutely amazing, and so full of compassion and understanding for every single student that enters the building. I’ve seen first-hand that every teacher in the building recognizes every student and helps them out with anything they need.”

Administrator Kim Pahlow said Syble Hopp’s mission is to “provide an educational setting and program option for students with intellectual and other developmental disabilities so that each student is able to reach their fullest potential becoming self-confident individuals who have grown and developed into productive members of the community.”

Established in 1971, Syble Hopp – which is named after a founding teacher – is a public school funded through Brown County offering educational programming for students with disabilities from age 3 through turning 21.

“A superintendent, by the name of Joe Donovan, asked a teacher, Syble Hopp, if she would be willing to join him in starting a school that served only students with intellectual disabilities,” Pahlow said. “She said ‘yes’ and literally went door-to-door to find intellectually-disabled students who were not receiving an education in school.”

Syble Hopp parent Tina Grabig, said her son, Matt, who attended the Howard-Suamico School District through sixth grade, has never been good with change.

“It would take him a while to adjust, or get started in a new school year, or a new school,” she said. “When he went to Syble Hopp, he adjusted so well. I don’t know if it was because he felt more like he fit in, but he had no problems adjusting.”

Grabig said Syble Hopp provides its students with everything students in public schools have.

“They have homecoming,” she said. “They have proms. They do these dinners, they haven’t had them since COVID, but they host a fall dinner where you pay $1 to go to dinner and they invite alumni back. They are always included.”

Taylor said they chose Syble Hopp for Preston, because of the opportunities they had to offer to him.

“Syble Hopp looks at every child and supports them to their fullest needs,” she said. “Everyone is accepted and included in every program offered. Preston has a great group of friends, and they do many outside activities together beyond Syble Hopp activities.”

Syble Hopp is open to students from seven county districts – De Pere, West De Pere, Wrightstown, Denmark, Ashwaubenon, Howard-Suamico and Pulaski.

“We believe every student deserves an educational path that is uniquely right for them,” Pahlow said. “We are able to provide the districts with another option to accomplish this.”

Financing is provided by state aid through the County Children with Disabilities Education Board, special education categorical aid and property tax levies from participating districts.

Tammy Nicholson, director of pupil services for the Ashwaubenon School District said students who attend Syble Hopp, are still considered district students.

“Syble Hopp is not a stand-alone school district, but a placement option for us to consider based on student needs,” Nicholson said. “When the student ends school they get a diploma from Syble Hopp and the district they reside in.”

She said she still oversees each student’s services in collaboration with Syble Hopp staff.

Nicholson said in addition to the tax levy, each participating district using Syble Hopp as a placement option also pays a yearly per-pupil fee.

“This fee covers part of the costs for the online data system used and for the administrative secretary, social worker and nurse salaries,” she said.

Syble Hopp also raises funds through its parent organization.

Nicholson said it is not an open enrollment situation.

She also said if an open-enrolled student would need to go to Syble Hopp, they would need to re-enroll in their home district, and then that district could consider Syble Hopp as a placement option.

Though students enrolling at Syble Hopp from area districts vary each year, administrators said numbers have remained relatively steady.

During the 2018-19 school year, Ashwaubenon had 24 district students enrolled at Syble Hopp, West De Pere had 53, De Pere 47 and Howard-Suamico 30.

Green Bay does not send students to Syble Hopp.

“We do not send students there, because the other districts in Brown County pay tax levies to attend there,” Green Bay Executive Director of Student Services Claudia Henrickson said. “Since we are so large, we already have the resources to be able to meet the needs of a wider range of students with disabilities than any of the other much smaller districts do.”

Unique approach

Pahlow said Syble Hopp stands out because of its approach to education.

Students at Syble Hopp are educated in non-graded classes, which are divided into five areas: early childhood, primary, intermediate, middle school and high school.

Pahlow said the entire curriculum is community-based and revolves around five components: functional academics, community living, independent living, recreational/leisure skills and vocational training.

“The younger the child, the more academics,” Pahlow said. “The older the child, more emphasis is placed on independent living, community living and vocational skills.”

The core curriculum is coupled with supporting services, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech-language therapy, adaptive physical education, adaptive music and the use of a therapy pool, as needed.

“Syble Hopp curriculum has a strong focus on community experiences,” Pahlow said.

Community settings are often the classrooms, and include independent skill development, such as accessing transportation, shopping, recreation and restaurant experiences.

“These are all planned with how our students can contribute to and become productive members of our community,” Pahlow said.

Moreover, she said, Syble Hopp’s vocational program allows students to volunteer and work in the community.

Pahlow said basic independence skills of start at an early age.

“Responsibility for their actions and the self-confidence needed to engage in different jobs is encouraged with every student,” she said. “Work programs are set up both in school and through community employment.”

Grabig said this approach helped prepare her son, who graduated in 2020, for the real world.

“Matt still got taught math,” she said. “But he got taught to the aspect of like if he were going to purchase something. They would teach you what this price is and another price, and add those two together. They teach you more at that school of how these kids could possibly live on their own, or still live at home, and do things, and function as they get older.”

Grabig said students are taught skills such as cleaning, cooking, shopping and working.

“They take these kids out into the public and do different things with them, so they learn,” she said. “I mean, to me, that school teaches them the way these kids would live.”

Taylor said Syble Hopp helps students reach their potential.

“I love the fact that the students are a part of the school itself, not just a student,” she said. “Each student is able to reach their potential with no limits, and they receive the appropriate education and life skills training they need to become a valuable person in our community.”

Taylor said Preston volunteers at the Grounded Cafe at the Aging & Disability Resource Center and in the gift shop at the Neville Public Museum.

Pahlow said Syble Hopp’s curriculum is consistently evaluated to coincide with its student population.

“We continue to learn more about and focus our academics and interventions on serving the students,” she said. “We are seeing more and more students that have autism or are on the autism spectrum.”

Like many districts throughout the state, Pahlow said Syble Hopp feels the stresses of funding and staff struggles.

“Our greatest staffing shortage is in the area of substitute teachers and instructional aides,” she said. “Funding wise, a large portion of our students’ community-based instruction, which is a key to our programming, and its transportation is paid for through the fundraising done by our parent organization.”

Syble Hopp is currently sponsoring a capital campaign to add therapy space, sensory rooms and a vocational training area.

Contact Syble Hopp directly for more information.

A 50th Anniversary celebration originally planned for Oct. 2 has been postponed until spring 2022, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This story was produced by the NEW News Lab, a collaboration of newsrooms that focuses on issues important to Northeast Wisconsin.

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