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Helping students of all abilities instills pride in Joanne Riker

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.

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