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South Jordan Journal

South Jordan special ed teacher retires after tirelessly advocating for her students

Aug 11, 2023 10:11AM ● By Julie Slama

South Jordan Elementary special education teacher Kelli Sundell got a surprise visit from some of her former students shortly before her retirement. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

During the last 17 years, there have been changes in procedure, paperwork and even in the special education program, but at South Jordan Elementary, there has been a constant factor — the endless support of teacher Kelli Sundell.

“We focus on what they can do,” Sundell said about her students who are in an academic communication classroom. “If they can’t do math, we try doing it with a calculator. If they aren’t able to do it with a calculator, we try other things. We can use a lot of combinations of tools and accommodations to help them be successful, not tell them they can’t do something.”

Sundell is known around her school and Jordan School District for being a champion for students with disabilities.

Her former principal, Ken Westwood, remembers her advocacy when they worked together.

“Kelli Sundell works with a group of highly impacted kids with significant challenges, but she treats them like real people and expected big things; the results for kids were always very high,” he said. “And she was always behind them, a solid advocate. She’d say, ‘These kids are capable, they will do this, and they will succeed’ — and they did. There was no taking ‘no’ for an answer with Kelli.”

Now, those shoes will need to be filled by another teacher who wants to make a difference. Sundell is retiring after 17 years in the classroom.

Her path began as an American Sign Language interpreter for the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind, where she would attend mainstream classes with an assigned student for a couple years.

After 16 years, she earned her master’s degree in special education and began working for Jordan District in 1992.

“I always wanted to teach special ed. I started interpreting because I had that skill; my cousin is deaf,” she said.

That skill has helped with her ability to communicate with her students.

This year, she has a student who has apraxia; the student is able to understand everything, but she can’t respond.

“She couldn’t talk so I got her an interpreter last year and she communicates with her through sign language,” Sundell said, adding that she, too, signs with the student.

Fifth-grade student, Elijah McIntyre, once could make sounds that only his twin, Malakai, would understand.

“It was like they had their own language,” their mother Melanie Candelaria said. “But now, he has learned how to talk. She began by teaching him sign language and now, he carries on a verbal conversation without hesitation.”

Typically, 16 students study core subjects in Sundell’s classroom from fourth through sixth grade. They rotate with general education students in PE and music.

Her students are evaluated every three years to see if they continue to qualify for special education. 

“There may be an intellectual disability, a speech and language disability, Autism, health issues so it’s an involved process. We test their speech and language, academic, IQ, adaptive skills — there are quite a few tests,” Sundell said. “Usually, the kids in our classes are three years or more behind the general education peers. That’s why we have our IEPs (individualized education plans).”

Westwood said some of her students take the same test as their peers while others took specialized tests. 

“The bottom line for Kelli was, ‘where are you now and where are you a year from now?’ Her kids always made a lot of progress,” he said.

That’s Sundell’s goal.

“If they get 80% growth, that’s great — any kind of growth is great,” she said. “My kids are higher functioning compared to other classes; they can have a conversation with you, and I can send them out to recess with no problems.”

Other special education classes may center around emotional behavior or they’re learning functional skills.

“We don’t use terms at our school; I made sure of that,” Sundell said. “We call them students, the same as everyone else.”

Sundell is known for being a staunch believer in her students’ abilities.

“Never underestimate the abilities of a child with a disability. That’s my motto,” she said.

She motivates them to succeed.

“It’s called, ‘expectation;’ they will rise to the occasion if given that opportunity,” Sundell said. “We teach, we find accommodations and then, we’re consistent, we’re structured, and we let them know that they can do it. I’m here to help, but they do it. If the child has a hard time and can’t understand the sounds or if they have problems with their hands and can’t write, they can talk into the computer, and it’s typed out for them. If they have a problem with reading, we give them a reading pen that reads to them. Not everything is black and white; my job is to make things gray.”

Her instructional assistant, Staci Marsh, said Sundell does a lot of research.

“She is always looking for alternatives,” Marsh said. “We had some kids who were really struggling to read, and they weren’t progressing as much as she knew they could. So, she researched different options until she found the pen that scans the text and reads it. We had another student who couldn’t really take notes. She found him a pen that records so he could keep the information without having to write excessive notes. A student who has apraxia and is working with an interpreter and her speech is better. She does more than find those accommodations, she gives them confidence.”

Sundell also doesn’t sugarcoat.

“If a kid comes back after going to another school and tells me he can’t do it because it’s different, I’ll tell him, ‘Guess what, Dorothy? You’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Or if they start to whimper over something, I’ll say, ‘There’s no crying in baseball’ and they’ll stop. They understand the concept even if they may not understand the reference. In fact, they’ve added to that. It’s now, ‘There’s no crying in baseball, in basketball and in soccer,’” she said, with a laugh.

Stacy Wise, who has worked beside Sundell for a handful of years, said students appreciate her approach.

“She has a way with the kids,” Wise said. “They respect her. Some of the kids come and they couldn’t read, write, do math. She taught them; she never gives up on them. She tells these kids, ‘You can do this.’ It empowers them. She makes them feel valuable and holds them to an expectation that sets them up for success for middle school.”

Kristi Richards says that is true of her son, Colton, an Oquirrh Hills ninth-grader.

“She taught him to advocate for himself and that has helped him do well in middle school,” she said. “He learned he needs to be part of the school and not be excluded from anything. When he was in her class, she was advocating to make sure that her class was treated fairly. Students learned that lesson in this classroom — to make sure they get everything they need to be successful and that they can do whatever they wanted to do.”

Wise also has gotten much advice and guidance from Sundell for her own son in navigating the system of IEPs, accommodations, and laws.

“She’s told me how things should be handled in his classes so that they can help him be successful and not to let anyone label him or tell him that he can’t do things,” she said.

Sundell has high expectations for her students and sets them up for success by having a structured classroom, Wise said.

“Everything here is organized. We have spelling; we have reading time, but she also has fun with the kids. She’s a big teaser and knows how to get them to laugh with her,” she said.

Fifth grader Conner Rosenthal likes her jokes. 

“She gets us to laugh all the time,” he said. “Once we even got to put a pie in her face and she laughed the most.”

Elijah said his teacher is “a teaser. Last year for April Fool’s Day, she pranked everyone, but us; we were sick.” 

His twin, Malakai, likes his teacher because “she’s smart.”

“She told me a secret,” he said. “She has the same birthday as us and taught us a way to know when it’s coming up. I’d tell, but it’s our secret.”

Candelaria said her sons have come a long way.

“He (Malakai) has hydrocephalus and a brain tumor. He wasn’t even supposed to walk, let alone run. Elijah was born clinically dead and spent five weeks in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). He didn’t talk until he was eight. They were behind in reading and about everything, but they’ve had a lot of intervention and have closed the gap. This class has just been a good environment for them. They’ve made friends and since kids stay in the same class for several years, they have a special bond with each other and their teacher. They have three aides, so they have that one-on-one that is vital to them. They’re learned skills so they can do more things on their own and they’re becoming more independent and successful,” she said.

That’s the reward, Sundell said.

“The best part is seeing them progressing, becoming the person that they know they can become,” she said. 

Sundell was getting help taking down graduation announcements, pictures, notes from students and classroom holiday decorations. Her Miss Piggy gifts — “I have over 1,000 things, so many from my students” already were at home.

There still was the final farewell and talent show, where students showcase their singing, dancing, artwork, LEGO sculptures for their parents. This year, a student even was a ventriloquist.

The talent show was a favorite for Bingham High sophomore Emily Austin, who returned to Sundell’s classroom to give her former teacher a hug.

Her mother, Joy, credits much of her daughter’s capabilities to her former teacher.

“Emily is incredibly shy,” her mother said. “Ms. Sundell really helped her come out of her shell. Before Emily was even in her class, she would talk to her and tease her. She took such an interest in her. They would talk about anything and everything under the sun.”

She paused, then added: “I don’t know how she did it, but she was able to bring out the best in every kid.” λ