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Adapted Physical Education Program


As the boy hoisted a plastic pipe, Dave Henderson lifted his spirits.

Henderson was teaching the correct form for a dead lift during a gym class in State College Area High School’s interim fitness center. Shins straight, rear down, chin up: The routine was standard — except for the pipe. It replaced a heavier bar that might have hindered learning the technique.

“Perfect!” Henderson says, raising his hands at the smooth rise.

The pair had scored another adapted physical education victory.

Henderson leads State High’s adapted PE program for students with physical and intellectual challenges, part of special education. His two classes this year for 34 students provide PE instruction that’s “appropriate for the person with a disability as it is for a person without a disability,” as
defined by the Adapted Physical Education National Standards (APENS).

“No matter what, we provide the same curriculum and same experience to every student who comes through the door,” Henderson says. “My job as an adapted PE teacher is to look at each individual who comes into my class and alter things to fit their needs.”

In offering APE courses at Easterly Parkway Elementary School and Mount Nittany Middle School as well as State High, the district reinforces its commitment to equity. But Henderson brings another level to the job. Certified in APE by APENS, he’s adept at tailoring training and activities using alternate equipment such as the weight-lifting pipe, balloons and beach balls for volleyball, or shortened hockey sticks for students in wheelchairs.

For a visually-impaired student, Henderson found a ball that made noise so she could track it. For another with chronic blood pressure disorder and a weak heart, he and his two paraprofessionals, Angela Lesher and Ann Territo, adapted exercises for a seated position.

“My goal is to give them all the experiences they would be having in a general PE class,” he says.

Students with special needs once participated in PE off to the side. Lesher, with 11 years in APE at State High, says those students now benefit from learning in a group.

“I think it gives them a chance to show what they can do because they’re with their peers,” she says. “They can shine on their own.”

Jenny Lee, a State High life skills support teacher, says the classes give her students with multiple disabilities the exercise they need for simple daily movements.

“Dave’s assistance in maintaining their strength and improving their dexterity makes life more gratifying as they search for independence,” she says. “He’s dedicated to his students, making special accommodations so each one of them can feel individual success in whatever sport he’s teaching.”

That growth delights Henderson, who says building confidence and self-advocacy matters as much to him as boosting endurance and coordination. His 2011 certification extended a passion for APE that began at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and continued with a master’s degree in special education.

In his six years at State High, he has seen APE grow itself: more students with Individual Education Plans, more equipment available. No longer does he make a lot of gear. Penn State education students now help teach classes, and selected State High students serve as assistants.

What hasn’t changed is the admiration that fuels him.

“I love every single one of my kids,” he says. “They do not complain. They do what you ask them to do, and they will try hard. I see more gains, more increases, with them than I do in the general education classes.”

To get there takes work on both sides. Communication can be hard sometimes. Classes require constant attention, so much that Henderson says he couldn’t manage without his veteran paras.

But in the end, the rewards — such as seeing students excel in Special Olympics competition — outweigh tired legs.

“I feel like if my students can give everything they’ve got,” he says, “there’s no reason I can’t be here everyday working my butt off.”

Chris Rosenblum

Photos by Nabil K. Mark