Since our founding more than 35 years ago, A Chance To Grow has relied heavily on the generosity of volunteers to sustain the growth of our organization. As the number and complexity of services grew, so too did the need for volunteers with diverse skills. ACTG’s cutting edge new therapeutic techniques attracted many professionals to support our worthy cause. One individual who saw the benefits of ACTG’s mission was Jo Gascoigne.
Jo began her illustrious academic career in 1958 as a physical education teacher in Mankato. She moved up to Minneapolis and began teaching at North High School and next moved to Wayzata where she served as a physical education teacher and trainer for elementary teachers. She always believed that physical education was a key factor for children to reach their full potential, and was recognized by the Croft Association for her methods that combined music, math and physical education. In 1974, she was one of five teachers that received the “Outstanding Elementary Teachers of America” award.
“Traditional public school’s Physical Education programs were focused on games and sports,” said Jo, “but I felt the curriculum must have an emphasis on developmental benchmarks. There is a need to advance through skill levels methodically, or skills that were missed will show up later in their lives.” With this in mind, Jo established an adaptive physical education course for students that were less physically skilled – the first state funded program of its kind in Minnesota.
Jo was then invited to teach at the Cooperative School Rehabilitation Center (CSRC) in Hopkins, a cooperative program sponsored by the University of Minnesota for students with cognitive impairments, who until then, had not been enrolled in school or an appropriate program. This experience allowed Jo to see firsthand what impact the lack of education had on students with disabilities. During her time at CSRC, she returned to school and earned a Specialist Degree in Administration to address the educational equity gap at a higher level.
In 1972, Jo was invited to lead a summer course at the University of Minnesota for educators looking to get into the Special Education field, where for two summers, she taught them the importance of motor memory and the impact it could have on an individual’s future cognitive abilities. After receiving another degree, she accepted the position of Director of Special Education for a four-district cooperative comprised of Waconia, Watertown, Chaska and New Germany. After several years in this role, the Minnesota Department of Education hired her as the Special Education West Metro Regional Consultant (SERC), where she worked with 22 school districts.
In 1974, Jo became involved with a landmark piece of legislation that guaranteed all children, including those with disabilities, receive a free and appropriate public education in every state. In 1975, the 94th Congress passed Law 94-142, which improved how children with disabilities were identified, evaluated the success of these efforts, and provided due process protections for children and families. The law supported more than 1 million children who had been excluded entirely from the education system, and countless others with only limited access to appropriate education.
This propelled Jo into her next position as the Assistant Director of Special Education at the Minnesota Department of Education, where she focused on the implementation of these newly enacted federal laws. She continued to advocate for parents, students, teachers and programs throughout the duration of her career, which spanned more than 35 years and included stops in Fridley, Osseo and Mahtomedi, until her retirement from traditional districts in 1993.
It was about this time that she began her involvement with the growing charter school movement. She was contacted by the Metro Deaf School, which sought her help in starting the first charter school in the nation for deaf students. Not long after, Bob and Kathy DeBoer approached her to advise them on the development of ACTG’s New Visions School.
”I really liked the fact that A Chance To Grow was trying different and unique therapies - things I couldn’t get into traditional public schools,” said Jo. “I guess I have the same philosophy as Bob and Kathy: developmental movement is key to higher learning and all children, regardless of ability, should be given every opportunity to reach their full potential.”
At the time, New Visions was struggling financially due to unequal funding for students in charter schools. While traditional districts received funds from taxes and levies, charters were not eligible for those funds. It was very difficult to provide programs for students, pay salaries for teachers, and pay for leases to keep the school open. Jo, along with Bob DeBoer and Bobbi Cordano of Metro Deaf School, met with a member of the legislature and convinced her to provide lease-aid based on the number of students enrolled. This legislation dramatically increased charter school funding and was a major win for charter schools around the state.
Over the next 17 years, Jo continued to volunteer her time to help improve ACTG’s financial stability, as well as the organization’s leadership structure. She served as a consultant, helping to streamline the outpatient therapy clinic’s medical forms and intake process, as well as organizing the department procedures and schedules. More recently, she helped Bob and Kathy prepare to retire, facilitating a smooth transition for the new Executive Director, Erica Dickerson.
“For many years, Jo’s been a wonderful volunteer who has helped build this organization in ways most people don’t know,” said Bob. “She’s done remarkable work on behalf of special education across the country and we are so grateful that she saw value in our mission and felt inclined to share her talents with us.”
These days, at the age of 87, Jo continues to support A Chance To Grow’s mission by referring countless families to our clinic.
“I see how grateful parents are when they see their kids make progress, and their willingness to drive far distances to participate in their innovative programs,” she said. “It’s not just the interventions that they offer, it’s the relationship and trust that parents and children enjoy with the dedicated and knowledgeable staff at A Chance To Grow that make it special.”