A dream come true: Teacher of autistic students gets $2K classroom makeover

Jill Rissetto, center, entering her second year as an exceptional student education teacher at St. Cloud Elementary School, won a $2,000 classroom renovation through a contest held by Addition Financial.

Jill Rissetto’s dream classroom includes calming colors, a sensory corner for her non-verbal students as well as a safe space for them to regulate their emotions.

Thanks to a classroom makeover, St. Cloud Elementary School exceptional student education  (ESE) teacher’s students walked into that reality on Aug. 12.

Rissetto, entering her second year as an ESE teacher at St. Cloud Elementary School, is one of four Central Florida public elementary school teachers who each won a $2,000 classroom renovation through a contest held by Addition Financial.

“I was completely blown away,” Rissetto said after her July 29 unveiling.

One teacher from Osceola, Seminole, Orange, and Lake counties was selected from more than 200 applicants for the credit union’s 2019 Renovate to Educate, now in its second year. Teachers wrote essays specifying how a dream classroom renovation would benefit them and their students.

“We had so many great stories,” Valerie Moses, Addition Financial’s senior relationship manager, said. “We found that a lot of teachers put so much of their time into their classrooms and we wanted to help them and thank them.”

The credit union, which was founded by teachers in 1937, partnered with Seminole State College’s Interior Design program, hiring paid interns to collaborate with the winning teachers.

Holly Rodwick, professor and program manager of interior design program, called the internship a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” that allowed her students to gain skills such as interviewing clients and working within budgets and time constraints.

Rissetto praised the design students, who visited her classroom in April after it was announced she was a winner.

“They did such an amazing job,” she said. “They put so much thought into it and made the space functional.”

Rissetto teaches a self-contained class of up to eight students with autism in kindergarten through second grade, with her student ranging from low to high functioning. Her needs and those of her students are different than a typical classroom.

Those needs incorporated in the renovation included what Rissetto calls her “break area” where her students can take a moment to calm themselves down.

“Most of my students are non-verbal and sometimes they get overwhelmed and don’t want to do their work,” she said, adding a safe space is necessary in those situations.

Because Rissetto spends up to three years with her students, she becomes more familiar with them than the average teacher. She requested sensory items such as slime and fidget toys, which Rissetto uses as positive reinforcement.

The makeover also included a huge L-shaped desk and an updated paint motif using calming stripes of pale pink and blue. The student tables are now topped with dry-erase material, which allows students to write directly on the table and eliminate an extra step of paper.

Flexible seating was also integrated using wobble seats so students can rock, a typical movement for people with Autism, and hordes of school supplies.

“I’m not going to have to buy school supplies for at least five years,” Rissetto said, adding that she feels like her classroom fulfills her and her students’ needs. “I feel like if the flow of my classroom works, my job as a teacher is easier.”

One person not surprised by Rissetto’s win is St. Cloud Elementary School Principal Megan Dierickx.

She praised Rissetto as “the best ESE teacher I’ve ever worked with.”

“It speaks volumes that she was selected because she is always about the kids,” Dierickx said. “Our students and parents are going to be ecstatic.”