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Kids & Education

Dyker Heights students build desk to accommodate classmate’s wheelchair

Using science to give back to a fellow student.

A group of seven eighth graders from I.S. 201, Dyker Heights Intermediate School are drawing inspiration from a classmate for their project for the District 20 STEAM Expo.

The students, with help from science teacher Cindy Scognamillo, have spent the last month building a desk for their classmate, Maria Pizzo, who is wheelchair-bound and struggles to sit in a traditional desk, as part of their expo entry.

This is the first year that I.S. 201 is involved in the showcase, which is now in its third year of promoting science, technology, engineering, art and math.

“The theme was to solve a world problem,” said Scognamillo, who is in charge of the expo at I.S. 201. “You have to present a model and it has to be something doable and something you can make, even if it’s a replica of something much larger.”

When brainstorming with students, the science teacher said, they landed on a desk for Pizzo, and other students with handicaps. “We have four wheelchair-bound kids in the school,” said Scognamillo, stressing that, while the school is deemed ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant — it has an elevator and a ramp — there are still many obstacles that handicapped and disabled students may face in schools citywide that haven’t yet been addressed.

“It’s just a different experience,” she said. “In my room, [Pizzo’s wheelchair] doesn’t fit in the desk that I have. Her wheelchair legs don’t go under so the student is about two feet away. She can’t go any further — and that’s the case in several classrooms.”

Scognamillo and her students — nicknamed the Wheelchair Warriors — thought helping students with similar disabilities would certainly fit into fixing a world problem.

“A world problem doesn’t have to be mean water purification or solving world hunger,” she said. “There are problems and I’m sure this isn’t just our school. It involves the entire borough. I don’t think that for every handicapped student the Board of Education is going to buy a high-tech handicapped desk with adjustable legs.”

Once they decided on building a desk, students sacrificed their spare time to work on it.

The Wheelchair Warriors get to school at 7 a.m. — an hour earlier than the beginning of classes — once a week so they could work on the desk. Many days, they stay two hours after the final bell rings to keep building.

“I went to Home Depot for pieces of wood and Ikea for adjustable legs and we just brainstormed different ideas and we’re in the process of building,” Scognamillo told the Brooklyn Reporter Thursday. “We are probably three quarters of the way built now, so we are on our way.”

The expo, she said, is on March 28, with a drop-off deadline of March 27.

What makes their desk accessible, Scognamillo said, its its width and several bells and whistles.

“[Pizzo] uses her iPad a lot with her notebook so we wanted [the desk] to be able to lift up, sort of like an easel kind of wood on one side so she can put her iPad there but also have space apart of it that is flat so she can still have a notebook and a pencil out,” said the teacher. “We came up with all of these ideas, including hooks on the side so she could have her bookbag near her. She doesn’t keep her water out because there’s no space for it, so we thought we’d put a cup holder. We also wanted to put handles on the side because sometimes she likes to get up and stretch and it’s something that she can hold onto.”

Scognamillo is pleased with the level of both work and care shown by her students.

“It’s a really nice project and the kids are learning, using tools, working together and they realize that it’s not easy,” she said. “They understand schools don’t take into account some of the disadvantages that a student in a wheelchair has. Some of these kids are getting up around 5:30 a.m. to be at school and meet me early. I know how hard that is for a teenager. Then they stay late when I know they have homework and other things going on. It’s great to see — and now we have this bond because we are working together.”

The response from their classmate has also been positive.

“She says she’s excited and happy,” her teacher said. “She smiles about it. Her parents are super thrilled about it.”

The group has gotten lots of attention since CBS2 News first reported on the Wheelchair Warriors, Scognamillo said.

“People saw it on TV and so many people reached out to me crying, hugging me. I didn’t view it like that at all,” said Scognamillo. “We are building something because we recognize a problem and we are doing something about it. But when you look at it from a different perspective, people think its great.”

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