Baltimore Teachers Union surprises special educator with extreme classroom makeover

On any given day, the activity in Ellen Vikestad's classroom would resemble a round of bumper cars.

As Vikestad and her special-needs students at Claremont High School have made their way from one end of her cramped classroom to the other for lessons, they do so in a 15-minute navigation of instruments, desks and one another.

On Tuesday, officials from the Baltimore Teachers Union and the city school system surprised Vikestad with news: Soon that would change.

Vikestad, in her fifth year of teaching music therapy at Claremont — a tiny school that offers a life-skills curriculum for its 61 students who are not pursuing diplomas — won the BTU Extreme Classroom Makeover contest, held every year by the local union and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers.

"It's quite an honor to be chosen and to have a classroom that functions," said Vikestad, a city teacher for more than 25 years, who fought back tears as her students cheered her on. "The more experiences I can offer them, the more chances they will have to learn."

The instruments strewn about Vikestad's classroom are as much a testament to Vikestad's zeal for engaging her special-needs students in music therapy as they are of another reality: She has no place to put them.

In the essay she wrote for the contest, Vikestad — who wrote her own grant to receive $10,000 worth of instruments for her students — said she was grateful to have a classroom because it is a rarity for music teachers in the system.

But, she wrote, "add students, their wheelchairs and walkers, paraprofessionals, teacher and instruments, at times we are bumping into everyone and everything."

Upon arriving in Vikestad's brightly colored classroom, with its cramped space for students, city teachers union President Marietta English said: "I see some things right away that we could take care of."

English, who has joined the ranks of city leaders campaigning for funds to fix the school system's crumbling infrastructure in the past year, said the program is important because it supports that cause, even if it is just one classroom at a time.

Vikestad will work with a team of designers in the coming weeks to figure out exactly what she wants, and the BTU, AFT and school system will help to solicit donations for the project, due to be completed over the summer.

"It's the kind of program we need because we don't have enough funds to do what we need to do," English said. "We need to do this in as many schools as we can."

Vikestad was chosen from a pool of nine applicants from around the city. A panel of judges scored the teachers' applications, with Vikestad receiving a 97 out of 100.

The rest of Vikestad's application included a wish list of other upgrades, like storage space, "audio-visual equipment from the 21st century," and a Smartboard, which she said makes her "imagination run wild" when she thinks of how her students could interact with it.

"Special needs is her passion, and she works with them to bring out the abilities they have," said Claremont's principal, John Butt.

"I — they — just need fewer obstacles," Vikestad concluded.

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