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MailTribune.com
  • Community rallies behind Down syndrome student

  • Eliza Schaaf sits in a ceramics lab at Southern Oregon University, quietly painting a peach-color glaze on a hand and wrist she sculpted out of clay.
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  • Eliza Schaaf sits in a ceramics lab at Southern Oregon University, quietly painting a peach-color glaze on a hand and wrist she sculpted out of clay.
    The 20-year-old woman with Down syndrome, who on Nov. 8 was dropped from a ceramics class by the SOU administration, was allowed to visit the university's ceramics lab Friday to glaze the unfinished project.
    Thus far, she is still barred from class, in spite of an appeal by her parents and support from Schaaf's classmates and the university's Student Senate.
    "I didn't like it," Schaaf says of the administration's decision, as she brushes on the glaze. "It made me feel frustrated. I miss my friends in class."
    The university said Schaaf required excessive supervision and one-on-one attention that limited the instructor's ability to interact with the rest of the class, points which Schaaf's classmates disputed in a petition.
    Schaaf's sculpture depicts two hands holding the earth. A small whale figurine glides on the globe's curve and spouts air from its blowhole.
    Since Schaaf was an elementary pupil at Pinehurst School in remote southeast Jackson County, she has been included in regular education classes with her peers.
    Upon the insistence of her parents, she was allowed to remain in mainstream classes at Ashland High School with the help of a special education assistant.
    "What worked with Eliza and works with other kids with Down syndrome is modeling," says Deb Evans, Schaaf's mother. "Modeling has a huge impact. When you put them with kids who are high achievers, and the teachers' expectations are high that elevates the situation of the kids with Down syndrome."
    Evans says the inclusion of students with Down syndrome in mainstream classes also fosters understanding and compassion among the other students.
    During high school, her classes included global studies, English, journalism, musical theater, science and basic math. In a school-to-work class, she sorted clothes by size at Ashland's Hospice Unique Boutique and worked with preschoolers at the Ashland YMCA.
    Schaaf, who has a modified diploma from Ashland High School, wanted to take a university ceramics class as a way to enjoy her art passion and to connect with her peers.
    "I wanted to make my own artwork out of clay," she says. "I wanted to be with people my own age."
    Schaaf's high school friends headed off to college, as did her brother, 18-year-old Wilder, who graduated from high school with Schaaf last June and went to Washington State University.
    "With all that talk, it's pretty easy to get caught up in it," Evans says.
    Evans and her husband, Ron Schaaf, saw no reason why their daughter shouldn't be allowed to try a university class. They knew she wouldn't be able to take the majority of the classes offered at the university, but Introduction to Ceramics was something they thought she could do.
    Eliza enrolled online as a non-admitted student seeking credit. Evans says she wrote to the instructor a week before class to inform her that Eliza had Down syndrome and that Evans would act as Eliza's personal assistant. There was no sign of objection, Evans say.
    The university administration has not spoken to the media about Eliza's case, citing federal law that prohibits them from disclosing information about students.
    Mollie Mustoe, Schaaf's classmate in the ceramics class, said Schaaf completed all her projects on time.
    In addition to the globe sculpture, Schaaf made a campsite with camper figurines sitting around a camp fire below an arch showing stars on one side and a sun in a blue sky on the other. She also made two ceramic tissue boxes, one decorated with sunflowers and another decorated with hearts. She says she plans to give one of them to her grandmother for her 90th birthday.
    Although administrators expressed concerns that Evans' role as a personal assistant was a disruptive presence in the classroom, Evans says there was no indication Eliza would be removed from the class until a letter from the university administration arrived Nov. 8. The last time, the Schaafs spoke with administrators, which was Oct. 11, the family was told the university would find a student personal assistant for Eliza to replace Evans, Evans says. By the time the letter arrived, more than two-thirds of the class was finished.
    Mustoe says Eliza's presence in the class was the opposite of disruptive. She was quiet and worked independently.
    "I asked for more help from the teacher than Eliza did," Mustoe says.
    Partly due to her visible presence at Ashland High School, Schaaf has a strong showing of support for her university endeavor from outside the university's student body. At least 27 people, including some of Schaaf's former high school teacher, have written letters to urge SOU administrators to allow Schaaf to complete her ceramics class.
    Evans says more than 200 people have signed a petition opposing the administration's decision. That's in addition to a petition signed by each of Schaaf's 19 ceramics classmates and at least 40 other SOU students.
    "Eliza has always been willing to try her hardest to fit in a world that doesn't seem to be made for her," wrote Bill Gabriel, Eliza's high school teacher for more than three years. "Her courage of embracing her disability is a lesson for us all to live by... . She made the classroom a better place because of her perseverance and her efforts."
    Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.
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