The basketball falls through the hoop and the gym erupts in cheers.
Rose Birrane, 15, has just made the first basket of the day in Jody Duff’s ninth grade P.E. class at Cedar Lane School in Fulton. Rose had a wide smile as the foam basketball launched from a catapult she activated by pulling on a rope.
Basketball is the focus of this class on Monday morning, featuring some of Duff’s handcrafted and creative sports contraptions. The students at Cedar Lane, ages 3 to 21, face a range of physical and cognitive challenges, meaning that Duff needs to adapt traditional sports to be accessible to them. Some are in electric wheelchairs or have limited motor skills.
Look around the gym: Giant foam rings can serve as basketball hoops or Skee-ball holes, and a leaf blower propels balls into the air when activated by a large, red button.
“Trial and error is the majority of what I do. I start with a big bucket of PVC pipe and I just duct tape and build until I get something that works,” Duff said. “Who wants to drop a ball over and over? [This] proves to [students] that you might have to do something a little bit differently, but you can still do it. If we adapt everything the right way it’s achievable.”
Duff, 34, has been at Cedar Lane since 2015, and is the 99-student school’s first full-time physical education teacher. Her work focuses on not only exposing the students to a variety of sports, but to use activities that help them practice life skills such as communication and improving mobility. Pulling on the catapult rope helps students with practicing grip and following Duff’s example of how to pull levers and press buttons helps with imitation skills.
“My real vision was to get students as independent in my class as possible,” Duff said.
Over the last three years, Duff has adapted everything from golf, bowling, football and shot put for her students, addressing the individual needs of each student to make the sport achievable.
This individualization is one of the key components of adapted physical education, according to Suzanna Rocco Dillon, president of the National Consortium for Physical Education for Individuals with Disabilities, an advocacy group that promotes research, professional development and service for those with disabilities. By allowing students of all abilities to find success in physical education, Dillon said it helps to build self esteem, confidence and social skills.
Schools across the U.S. are required to offer adapted physical education to students under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, often provided in a traditional classroom setting by adapting curriculum to fit students’ needs. Duff’s classroom devoted to students facing greater physical and cognitive disabilities is more unique, and in Howard County it stands alone as the only dedicated adapted physical education class among the county’s 76 schools, according to Katie Prichard, program head for adapted physical education in Howard County schools.
“Jody is creating opportunities for the students that are very unique because what she does in her class allows them to experience the same kind of success as their peers that are in general education,” Prichard said. “And it allows them to experience the joys of P.E. in the same way that all of the other kids in Howard County get to.”
That joy is evident during Duff’s classes. Students walk laps or dance to begin each class before they focus on the activity of the day, and end by logging their activities into a fitness journal.
In Duff’s third class of the day, the students, some of whom have autism, play a more traditional version of basketball with smaller, foam balls. Duff - who from one class to the next seems to have limitless energy to encourage, dance with and high-five her students - lifts them to be able to dunk baskets.
Duff said her goal is to share her ideas with more teachers at other schools, a mission that received a boost in October when cable television’s Golf Channel produced on segment on Duff’s adapted golf. Since then, Duff said she’s received interest from teachers across the country wanting to know how she adapts sports.
Increased awareness about the importance of adapted physical education is necessary to help grow support for the field in school districts throughout the U.S., Dillon said. While there are “pockets” of the country with strong programs for adapted physical education, Dillon said other states are still catching up.
About 368 students in the county receive adapted P.E. services, which have few critics, but national observers say there aren’t enough well-qualified instructors or supportive school districts to fully meet the needs of students.
No federal standard exists for adapted physical education teacher qualifications, and only 13 states, of which Maryland is not one, require adapted physical-education teachers to hold a master’s in the subject. More teachers, including Duff who has a degree in physical education, are becoming certified through the Adapted Physical Education National Standards (APENS), which includes 15 areas of knowledge and a certification examination.
Since APENS’ founding in 1996, more than 5,200 teachers have become Certified Adapted Physical Educators, and the organization hopes to one day have certified educators in every school district in the country, according to chairman Timothy Davis.
“We see when students are successful, parents talk about it, other teachers talk about it and the idea of something really innovative like what Jody’s doing can get implemented in other places [and] it starts to travel,” Dillon said.
Collette Jackson, whose daughter Regina, 21, has cerebral palsy and has been at Cedar Lane since she was 2-years-old, is one of those parents who can’t stop talking about Duff’s work. Jackson said she’s been “amazed” by the structure that Duff has brought to the school’s program.
Jackson watched her daughter play basketball during a recent class, and was “thrilled” to see Regina score a basket by flicking a switch to activate the leaf blower.
“In their world a lot’s done for them, so the fact that they can have this sense of accomplishment is a biggie for them,” Jackson said. “It makes it a life worth living.”