Jennifer Paolantonio firmly believes that all students can learn—and that facilitating and guiding learning is her most important charge. A special education teacher at Ponaganset High School (PHS) in Glocester, Paolantonio teaches students in grades 9-12 with mild to moderate learning disabilities but insists that as long as students believe in themselves, they can accomplish their goals without limits. Paolantonio plans themed lessons that cross disciplines, helping her students integrate into other classes based on their interests and strengths: chorus, plant science, manufacturing, visual arts, and new this year - United Sound. One student with Down Syndrome, and a stuttering disorder, learned to speak Spanish thanks to Paolantonio’s collaboration with a Spanish teacher. Several students who arrived in her classroom as nonverbal finished the program speaking. Brimming with confidence, her students lead all-school assemblies, plan fundraising and extracurricular activities, sing in talent shows and play sports, all while meeting their learning goals.
A champion for inclusion, Paolantonio has created a culture where all students and adults expect, welcome and support the integration of special education students into every aspect of the PHS experience. The school year begins with an assembly with all students wearing “I Choose to Include” t-shirts. Paolantonio collaborated with students and colleagues to draft an inclusion pledge recited by PHS students, one the Special Olympics International now asks all schools to take. Colleagues throughout the building observe her classroom to learn how to modify their curriculum and activities to include her students. She worked with the Special Olympics to create a full unified sports program, and coached basketball and volleyball, before recruiting others for these roles. Paolantonio has advised seniors on capstone projects that spread the message of inclusion throughout the state, including the elementary level. In 2017 PHS was the first high school in Rhode Island to be recognized as a Unified Champion Banner School.
Paolantonio has traveled to Washington, D.C. for Capitol Hill Day as Rhode Island’s Special Olympics teacher representative and traveled with students to China for the Special Olympics East Asia Summit to advocate for full inclusion. She has served on building and state advisory committees. Paolantonio has organized many schoolwide and community events, including assisting local law enforcement with the Torch Run; a Pink Madness basketball tournament to raise money for breast cancer; and the annual Unified Polar Plunge, in which PHS led the state in funds raised and participants. She presented in support of the Special Olympics at the 2019 South by Southwest EDU conference in Austin, Texas.
Paolantonio earned a bachelor’s in special education from Rhode Island College in 2006. She is pursuing a master’s in literacy from Providence College.
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