In her eight years as a special education teacher, she knows that the little things should be celebrated.
During her work at a group home, Jenifer Prenatt cheered when the residents she worked with would achieve what seemed to be small things, such as learning to feed themselves or flipping a switch to communicate with the staff.
“It was seeing those little things, that to most people seem little,” she said.
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While working at that group home, Prenatt found her calling. And this year, the Sugar Grove Elementary School special education teacher was named the Center Grove teacher of the year.
Part of Prenatt’s job is to guide the 35 special education students she works with through their education. She works with students in grades 1, 3 and 5. Together with their parents and school officials, she will set goals for each student for the year.
“(I like) watching them grow and making goals and reaching the goals we set for them,” Prenatt said. “When they meet them, we make a big deal about them.”
Davin Harpe, principal at Sugar Grove Elementary School, often gets calls from parents that praise how effective Prenatt is in the classroom, he said.
And she has a great sense of humor that allows her to see the bright sides of situations, he said. For example, when a copier in the staff room had a penchant for jamming, she posted a sign on it saying “I’ve nicknamed this copier Bob Marley because it always be jammin’,” he said.
Her humor has made her a magnet for teachers asking for mentor advice, he said.
And when she looks at a student, she always looks at what the student can do and not on what the student can’t do, he said.
“She doesn’t focus on the kids’ disabilities but focuses on their abilities,” he said.
Watching a student grow to the point where they no longer need Prenatt’s help is the best part of her job, she said. “When they don’t need me as much and I can just back off,” Prenatt said.
Becoming a special education teacher was not what Prenatt had expected for her career.
The native of New York started at the University of Connecticut as a psychology major. Soon, she wasn’t sure that line of work was what she wanted, she said.
So she took time off from school and got a job at a group home for people with special needs. Before her work there, she had limited experience with people with special needs, she said.
“What I learned quickly is they have so much to offer,” she said.
After four years at the group home, she wanted to explore the idea of helping special needs students as a career.
One of her duties was to sit in on meetings at schools and advocate for her students. She then knew she wanted to explore the educational side of helping students with special needs, Prenatt said.
“I loved working with the kids but wanted to do it in a different capacity,” Prenatt said.
After student-teaching at a high school and working at a middle school in another state, she decided she wanted to concentrate on elementary-aged students.
She has now been helping special needs students in the classroom for eight years. Four years have been spent at Center Grove, a move she made after her husband was stationed at Camp Atterbury near Edinburgh.
Working in an elementary school has allowed her to work with students early to help establish independence, Prenatt said.
“I like the idea of helping students early and helping them lay a foundation,” she said.
Name: Jenifer Prenatt
Occupation: Special education teacher at Sugar Grove Elementary School
Honor: Recently named Center Grove Community School’s Teacher of the Year
Education: Mansfield College and Canisius College