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The Story of a Trailblazing Teacher

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It is hard to believe people with disabilities had limited rights until 1990. In fact, it was not until November of 1975 that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed. This act ensured all children would receive an education and be provided special education and related services. The history of rights for people with disabilities in the big picture is fairly new. Because of the life expectancy of people with disabilities, many of the pioneers have passed on. The teachers that broke these barriers are no longer with us. The following is a biography of the first teacher to teach children in a public school in West Milwaukee in 1962.

Black and white photo of Jayne Bjorum.

Jayne had been teaching K-12 since 1942 in Ohio. When Jayne married in the fall of 1954, her husband was transferred to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She obtained a 4th grade teaching position in the West Milwaukee School District. She soon became well known for her abilities to help children that were considered ‘slow learners’ or ‘unable to learn’ to exceed the limits others had placed on them. In the fall of 1961, Jayne was asked if she would teach the first class of students that had severe limitations and disabilities. Many of these children had Muscular Dystrophy and Cerebral Palsy. At birth, these children had been taken from their parents and placed in institutions. Many parents had begun to fight back against this segregation and the treatment of their children. It is important to note the last institutions of this nature were closed only four years ago in California, Tennessee, and Rhode Island after being court ordered to do so. Jayne accepted the position and showed up for her new class on the Westside called Irving Elementary School in West Allis. Jayne would also be the first teacher allowed to teach while pregnant in the Milwaukee school system, giving birth the fall of 1962. 

Jayne became fast friends with many of the parents, finding out about the child’s home and history which helped her develop a plan for each child. Jayne had a classroom of eight children, ages 5 through 18, each with their own set of challenges. Some of the children were unable to communicate. She had a way of calming them and understanding their needs. Each child needed their own way to learn. Now we call that an IEP, Individual Education Plan. Because of the severity of the disabilities of these students, Jayne also found herself attending at least one funeral a year.

Jayne wanted to further her education, but there were few, if any, colleges in the U.S. that offered classes on disabilities. Jayne found Cardinal Stritch College in a suburb called Fox Point. This College had developed a program for the resident nuns, who had a hard time learning and reading. They were now offering this program to be duplicated and taught to help children with learning disabilities. Jayne would go on to get her graduate degree in Special Education and Reading. 

Jayne would often take her own daughter and son to school with her when they had different days off than her. This allowed her own children to interact and help in the classroom, learn about differences and abilities, and for both her students and her own children, to simply have fun. 

In 1970, when Jayne’s son was in 4th grade, his teacher, Mr. Enters, called Jayne and her husband in for a conference. It seemed Philip was having a very hard time with writing and spelling. Mr. Enters said Philip was able to read fluently but when writing his letters, they were backwards, upside-down and just all over the place. Jayne recognized the signs of dyslexia from her classes at Cardinal Stritch. Dyslexia was not diagnosed in schools and there were only a few resources. Jayne and Mr. Enters took on the task of helping Philip. The question was if it was dyslexia, how was Philip able to read so well and did these problems not show up until 4th grade. The question was soon answered. Philip had learned how to memorize every paragraph and every lesson in his books. Up until 4th grade, writing assignments were limited.  With help from his mother and with his memorization skills, techniques and lessons were developed to set Philip up for success.

Jayne continued to develop techniques for her classroom. Soon other schools were sending teachers in to observe Jayne’s methods.  In 1969, Wisconsin was one of only 11 states to have a teachers’ union and the Milwaukee teachers decided to strike. Jayne knew there was not anyone to take her class and her husband had just had open-heart surgery at Mayo Clinic and was not able to work. The strike became quite violent, as the picketers yelled at Jayne and called her a scab, threw things at her and threatened her. Jayne soon needed a police escort into her class each day. Two parents of Jayne’s students were afraid to send their children to school. As a result, Jayne would go to their homes after hours, deliver lessons and give hugs so the children would know Jayne had not left them.  

In 1975, Jayne and her family moved to a small town in eastern South Dakota. The Disabilities Education Act had just passed and Jayne would lead the way in special education in rural South Dakota. Many students have commented on where they would be if Jayne had not been in their lives, including Terry Geohring, who is now an advisor at the prison in Springfield, South Dakota. Terry said, “Without Jayne, I would have been on the other side of the bars here in Springfield. She believed in me when no one else did, including myself.”

Jayne taught school for 50 years until 1990, and when she retired, she went on to teach for two more years in Chadron, Nebraska at Chadron State College. Jayne was the first professor to teach students about learning disabilities and special education at Chadron State Collage.

Jayne passed away in 1998 from a Glioblastoma brain tumor that left her paralyzed from the waist down for 9 months. All eight pallbearers were her previous students; all great big men that she had touched and believed in when no one else did.  

Jayne’s son, Philip, earned his bachelor’s degree. He has managed fortune 500 businesses and, most recently, oversees the school lunch program for rural South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa. Philip’s college roommate and best man from his wedding has Muscular Dystrophy and uses a chair. Philip has been married 32 years to his beautiful wife and has two gorgeous daughters and a granddaughter.

Oh, and by the way, Jayne’s daughter is the Executive Director of the Workforce Diversity Network of the Black Hills.

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