Minding the Gaps: Public Schools Unite Us: The Story of Ben Nelson and the Menomonee Falls Public Schools

Minding the Gaps is a monthly Wisconsin Public Education Network blog from Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES) Board Vice President Jim Shaw examining educational gaps or educational inequity in Wisconsin.

Public Schools Unite Us is the 2022 theme of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. The story of Ben Nelson, a student in the Menomonee Falls School District, is proof that truer words were never spoken. I was the superintendent of the Menomonee Falls School District and often return to visit friends. Last summer I met the remarkable Ben Nelson. Ben is a high school student. I often learn from students and Ben is a good teacher. He reminded me all students can learn, public schools are for all children, attitude is more important than aptitude, every student is unique, and special accommodations are necessary. He reminded me “it takes a village.” Most importantly, he taught me that public schools unite us by including all children, involving all parents, and engaging the community.      

Ben Nelson was born with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and has been using a wheelchair since he was two years old. He is unique. He began attending the Menomonee Falls public schools when he was three years old, and received both special and regular education services. He is currently a 10th grader at the Menomonee Falls High School. Despite daily physical challenges, Ben is advanced academically, near the head of his class and enrolled in several advanced placement classes. He also participates in many extra-curricular activities and is the manager and an assistant coach of the Menomonee Falls football team. By any measure, Ben is a highly successful student. 

Ben deserves the lion’s share of credit for his success. His hard work, and indefatigable attitude are inspiring, but he is not alone. Ben’s incredibly involved parents and extended family, his supportive public school district, and the Menomonee Falls community are united for Ben.  From Ben’s initial SMA diagnosis family, school and community united in fundraising and informational campaigns. Ben’s mom and dad, Angie and Eric Nelson, began early education efforts at home. When Ben began attending public schools, Angie Nelson attended school classes with him to help establish the appropriate learning support framework. Classroom and special education teachers welcomed and included Angie and Ben, and provided special support and accommodations. Support staff, bus drivers, administrators, and the school board know and support Ben. While in elementary school, Ben and the community raised funds to build a universally accessible playground, the first of its kind in the Village of Menomonee Falls.  More recently the Village partnered with Ben to complete his Eagle Scout project for wheelchair-accessible picnic tables in Village parks.      

The Public Schools Unite Us theme reminds us education is a social endeavor. Menomonee Falls supports Ben, and Ben gives back to his school and community. In a time of social division, Ben Nelson and Menomonee Falls are united. In Ben’s words describing his Eagle Scout project to improve accessibility in three Village parks:   

“It feels awesome. We worked really hard. We had challenges along the way but we stayed focused on the goal. It feels great that we can give back to our community in this way.”The remarkable Ben Nelson teaches us that “we” is important. Public schools unite us. When schools, families and community unite, the children, families, schools and community succeed. Thanks to Ben Nelson for uniting us to Mind the Gaps.

Dr. Jim Shaw is a retired educator, former district administrator, UW professor, education consultant and author. He is currently the Vice-Chair of the Board of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools.

About the author: Wisconsin Public Education Network

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