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Bridgeport teacher honored with new sensory equipment

Joanna Vincenzo, center, cross categorical intervention specialist at Bridgeport High School was one three teachers selected out of 150 nationwide for a grant for new equipment in her special needs classroom. Beverly Prati, left, special education director for the school district, and Amanda DeLuca, board president of the More Than a Teacher initiative, congratulate her Monday. T-L Photo/ROBERT A. DEFRANK

BRIDGEPORT — Bridgeport’s Joanna Vincenzo, one of three teachers selected nationwide for recognition and a $5,000 grant, will have some new tools to help educate students with special needs next year.

The other two teachers chosen out of 150 nominees are based in Arkansas and Minnesota.

Vincenzo is a cross categorical intervention specialist at Bridgeport High School. The grant is from the More than a Teacher initiative through the nonprofit organization Finding Coopers Voice. That group has partnered with Fun and Function, which provides therapeutic toys for children with special needs, to donate equipment for a “sensory corner” in Vincenzo’s classroom.

Beverly Prati, special education director in the school district, nominated Vincenzo, noting the gains made by her students both in the classroom and in community and employment settings.

“We are very blessed here at Bridgeport to have such a wonderful education staff,” Prati said. “She has really shown that she’s an exemplary teacher. She works with a group of kids that have a lot of diverse needs and challenges, and she has soared with that. … In her setting, she’s getting the kids ready to be productive community members, getting them ready for the workforce, taking into consideration their challenges, their exceptional needs.”

In her nomination, Prati said Vincenzo makes time to provide needed individual attention for her students.

“She pours her heart and soul into her students, and she is one of the kindest people you will ever meet,” Prati said.

Vincenzo was also nominated by a mother of two students, who commended Vincenzo for her children’s accomplishments, as well as her availability and communication.

“Ms. Vincenzo has a direct and profound influence that has contributed to much of their successful progression,” Amanda DeLuca, board president of the More Than initiative, quoted the mother’s statement.

DeLuca said the value of the equipment is about $5,000 and teachers are able to customize the site. She said Vincenzo’s entry stood out, since she was nominated by both a coworker and a parent, recognizing the difference she is making in children’s lives.

Vincenzo was surprised and overjoyed at hearing the news.

“I don’t even know what to say, that’s awesome,” she said. “I am so excited. … That’s going to be so beneficial for the students and my classroom. The dynamics of the classroom are going to change completely. … We have a big year coming up.”

She said this will be valuable after students come back from community outings to practice job skills and need time to “decompress.”

Vincenzo works with students ages 14-18.

“We prepare them for soft skills and hard skills, for employment and get them ready for life after school, that’s our main focus,” she said.

“I want to help my students find their voice,” she continued. “My focus this past year has been to build my classroom and give my students the tools that they need. … I want them to be as independent as possible.”

Vincenzo said her classroom includes a “job center” where students “clock in” and “clock out.”

“They have a schedule they follow, they have job routines. They work for money in the classroom that they get to spend in the classroom store,” she said. “They take those skills that they develop in the classroom, and they are going to use them within the community.”

She said she works with Opportunties for Ohioans with Disabilities to develop social skills, work skills and life skills.

Next year, she will be taking her students to local businesses to reinforce those skills.

“Money management is a big one that we want to focus on, and to be able to use the money that we earn to shop for supplies,” she said.

Vincenzo has worked with Bridgeport’s students since the 2020-21 school year. She has been teaching for three years.

“I’ve grown up personally with kids with special needs, and it’s resonated personally for me from the very beginning,” she said, adding she was inspired by her younger cousin, Keaton Konczak of the Columbus area, to become a teacher.

She faced some particular challenges starting her work in Bridgeport during a high point of the COVID-19 pandemic, when education was disrupted across the board.

“To my kids, structure is so important, and that was so difficult because it threw a wrench into all the structure that everyone has known,” she said. “We were trying to come back from COVID and virtual learning. … It was a big adjustment for my students.”

Among the early challenges was not only building a classroom setting but reestablishing that structure.

She also credited her coworkers.

“I am so blessed with the most supportive team of administrators and paraprofessionals and service providers. It takes a village to execute a special education classroom effectively,” Vincenzo said. “I would not be the teacher that I am without the support that I have.”

DeLuca said other projects through the More Thana Teacher initiative include telehealth counseling for caregivers and scholarships. Next year, thegroup may look for grants to benefit parents of children with special needs.

“It’s an evolving project,” she said.

More information about the nonprofit organization can be found at findingcoopersvoice.com.

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