Kathy Schwartz has spent 29 of the last 38 years working with special education students in the Quincy School District's early childhood program.
Much of Schwartz's effort was focused on kids with autism -- the developmental disorder that affects social and communication skills.
Autism, which usually appears by age 3, is something new parents fear. They pray the disorder's tell-tale symptoms never surface because that would mean the child is likely to need special help for most of his childhood years, if not longer.
One of the most difficult parts of Schwartz's job involved breaking the news to parents that their little boy or girl might be autistic -- something the parents might have suspected but dreaded hearing.
"It's devastating," Schwartz said. "The hardest thing in the world is to sit down with a parent and say to them, ‘Your child is exhibiting some characteristics that remind us of children who are on the autism spectrum.' "
Schwartz would usually deliver those words with a school psychologist so together they could answer questions for the parents "and keep handing Kleenexes to them," she said.
On the other hand, one of the best parts of Schwartz's job involved working with autistic children and helping them make gradual gains in their communication and social skills.
"That's why I love this field. You get them here and give them this intense instruction, and they just blossom," she said. "Once parents see the progress, they're usually grateful. That's the best part of the job. When parents thank you for what you've done for their child, that's the most amazing thing."
When Schwartz retired this week, plenty of tears were shed -- not only by parents who entrusted their children to Schwartz and her team of paraeducators (Sue Archer, Theresa Edwards and Amy Herman), but also by Schwartz herself. She had formed warm relationships with numerous parents, children and fellow educators.
"I've cried a lot," Schwartz said Wednesday as the school year and her teaching career came to a close. "The worst was Thursday afternoon (May 19), the last day with the kids. That was pretty emotional. I looked into their little faces and just lost it."
Schwartz, who grew up in the Fowler-Paloma area, started her teaching career in 1973 at the old Jackson School at Eighth and College -- now the site of the Jackson-Lincoln Pool. At that time, Jackson School was home to all the district's preschool and elementary special ed classes.
Schwartz worked primarily with students identified as "trainable mentally handicapped" -- a term that's not even used anymore. She said students who would have been classified that way are now usually placed in "cross-categorical" classrooms suited to meet their needs.
Jackson School eventually closed, and early childhood special ed was moved to other locations. It was during this period that Schwartz left the school system for two extended leaves -- a total of nine years -- to raise her three children. When she returned in 1991, early childhood special ed was housed at Dewey Elementary School. Then in 1999, the program moved to its current location in the Early Childhood and Family Education Center.
Schwartz was well into her career before autism became more clearly defined as a specific disorder. As more children were diagnosed, she started the first "structured teaching" classroom to focus on children with autism and other communication disorders. Later, Schwartz was instrumental in helping to establish a structured classroom at Monroe School for elementary-age children from throughout the district.
"We saw how successful the structured teaching was here, and we were concerned that as these kiddos went on -- to keep that success going -- that they would need something similar," Schwartz said.
Since then, similar structured classrooms were established at Baldwin Intermediate School and Quincy Junior High.
Schwartz said she's looking forward now to spending more time with her husband, Stan, and their children and grandchildren. But she'll miss the students she has come to know and love. She said working in special ed has been "life-changing" for her.
"God just kind of led me in this direction, and I'll be forever grateful."