Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series on North Okaloosa County Teachers of the Year.
CRESTVIEW — A sign on Anita Dunn's classroom door lets visitors know the students inside are pretty special — and really loved.
"Dunn's Doves" are five kindergarten through second-grade-aged students at Richbourg Exceptional Student Education School.
"But that's chronological age," Dunn said, explaining each student functions at his or her own level.
"They're all so different," Dunn said. "Some are verbal, some non-verbal, some autistic, some Down syndrome, and one who reads at grade level."
Teaching students of diverse abilities takes getting to know each student and shaping an appropriate course of study for him or her, Dunn said.
"It's a progressive monitoring, just like any other student, but on their level," she said.
Some of her students respond to tactile stimuli; others learn through visual aids or physical interaction, she said.
"It's all ways of learning," Dunn said. "They absorb information in so many different ways."
Dunn, a special education instructor of 35 years, has taught at every school level in both district-wide and state-level schools. Fellow teachers at Richbourg selected her as the school's Teacher of the Year.
Richbourg Principal Barry Blackburn praised Dunn's dedication to her students.
"She has a great heart for her kids," he said. "She develops individual curricula for each of her students."
Opening Richbourg ESE in Crestview has been "a blessing" to north county families, Dunn said. Previously, students spent hours each day riding a bus to Silver Sands School in Fort Walton Beach.
Keeping students in the familiar surroundings of their own community is beneficial, particularly as they age, Dunn said.
"Our high school kids who do the job training are working in the community with people they know," she said.
Unknown people, a sudden change of surroundings or unsettling events, such as lengthy bus rides many students took before Richbourg opened, upset some of her students, Dunn said.
"Their behaviors are so complicated," she said. "You don't know what's upsetting them but they can't always tell you."
"The real joy is seeing the students make progress," she said. "When you see them make it, it is a special feeling."
Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Brian Hughes at 850-682-6524 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnbBrian.