January 26. 2014 8:36AM

Helping students of all abilities instills pride in Joanne Riker

Union Leader Correspondent

Joanne Lynn Riker, 31

Home: Dover

Birthplace: Portsmouth

Family: Husband, Steve Riker; son, Carter, born Jan. 6; parents, John and Aila Pratt; sister and family, Jannice, Andrew and Jacob Hodges

High school: Traip Academy, Kittery, Maine

College/post grad degrees: Fitchburg State College, B.S., communication studies and graphic design; Granite State College, special and elementary education; Grand Canyon University, masters of education in educational administration, expected in 2015

Current job: Spaulding High School, Rochester, special education case monitor/departmen head

Key past positions held: SHS Girls JV basketball/SHS varsity softball assistant/SHS varsity boys tennis coach, paraprofessional, graphic designer

Volunteer activities: Susan G. Komen 3-Day Breast Cancer Walk, Portsmouth Rotary Events, Unified Sports, Pease Greeters

Most admired person (outside your family): 1. Students I work with everyday who work hard to overcome their disabilities. 2. My mother, who is a two-time breast cancer survivor. She was originally diagnosed when she was 29 years old and I was a baby, and then diagnosed again when I was a senior in high school. She has always had a positive outlook and took care of her family first and foremost. I truly admire her and her attitude.

Key current professional challenge: Finding adequate time during the school day to teach and case monitor while completing the significant amount of necessary paperwork that is required legally.

Last major achievement: Helping to launch collaborative programs: unified sports teams (NHIAA-sanctioned soccer, basketball and volleyball where special education students are paired up with regular education students) and collaborative language and collaborative current events and media literacy courses at Spaulding where special education and regular education students are paired up in class.

Biggest problem facing New Hampshire: Insufficient funding for state agencies (DCYF, education, unemployment, disability). Many children and families do not have the support needed available for them, whether it’s in-home support and counseling, housing placement support, or group home availability for children.

Favorite place in New Hampshire: Strawbery Banke. Ancestor (Charles Hilton) lived in Strawbery Banke in the 1660s, also where my husband and I were married.

What book are you reading now? Steve Jobs

How do you relax? Dinner with my husband and friends

What websites do you visit most often? Facebook, CNN

Favorite TV show, radio station or musical artist: "Friends," "Downton Abbey," 24/7 Road to the Winter Classic

ROCHESTER — Using the appeal and fellowship of sports, a special education teacher at Spaulding High School created a new program which brings students together and instills a sense of pride all around.

Joanne Lynn Riker, 31, who lives in Dover with her husband, Steve, and their new son, Carter, said she's especially proud to see varsity athletes team up and interact with her students — who have varying levels of physical or developmental challenges — as they play soccer, basketball and volleyball in the unified sports program, which is sanctioned by the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association (NHIAA).

Most importantly, Riker said the partnership they build on the court transcends a mere game and is evident as teammates — who may not have had a chance to know each other — meet and greet others wearing their "game day jerseys" throughout the school day. She added other students who aren't in the program take notice of the positive relationship when a varsity athlete gives a teammate with moderate or severe disabilities a high-five in the hallway.

"These kids will always have their disabilities, but the social aspect is key," Riker said, adding as a result of the program many students learn to accept or overcome their issues — on the court, in class and eventually in life. 

Riker said she sees the same sense of partnership and accomplishment in students who take part in the Collaborative Languages program, which she helped create during her second year as a teacher. She added the program allows students to interact and practice Spanish together, which has a long-lasting impact.

"Retention is a huge part of disabilities, but they can have a conversation in Spanish months later," Riker said.

Riker, who grew up in Portsmouth and graduated from Traip Academy in Kittery, Maine, went onto Fitchburg State College, where she played varsity softball and basketball while earning a degree in communication studies and graphic design.

After working with kindergarten students as a paraprofessional for four years, Riker said she earned her teaching certificate in special and elementary education from Granite State College and was hired as a special education teacher last year. 

Riker said her greatest challenge is finding enough time to be with her students while juggling all the paperwork.

"There's a lot to do in the day," Riker said, adding she currently is overseeing about 40 people in the department.

While she previously coached boys' varsity tennis, girls junior varsity basketball and was an assistant coach for girls varsity softball at Spaulding, Riker said she plans to take a year off since her son was born Jan. 4. 

Currently, Riker is out on maternity leave for three months as she cares for Carter. Additionally, she's taking online classes with Grand Canyon University and expects to earn a masters of education administration degree next year.

Riker, who is proud of all the students who work to overcome their disabilities, said she learned perseverance from her mother, Aila Pratt, who is a two-time breast cancer survivor. 

"She was originally diagnosed when she was 29 years old and I was a baby and then diagnosed again when I was a senior in high school," Riker said. While she doesn't recall the first time, when she was only a year old, Riker said she remembers her mother's struggle well when she was 17.

"She has always had a positive outlook and took care of her family first and foremost," Riker said "I truly admire her and her attitude."

As a result, Riker said she was glad to take part in the annual Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Walk, in which she traveled 20 miles a day on foot and helped her team raise more than $20,000.

Special education coordinator Lori Gay said Riker is very dedicated and ensures each student has every opportunity to achieve success at Spaulding.

"With every student, Jo shows her compassion and enthusiasm for helping her students achieve success," Gay said, adding it was apparent from the beginning that Riker is an amazing educator.

"They are very lucky to have such a devoted advocate on their side," Gay said.