When Kennedy Kors graduated from Wilson High School this month, he set a record that had nothing to do with sports or scholastics — a record that likely will go unbroken.
Pale-skinned and thin, he has spent most of his first 18 years in a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy.
And since kindergarten, he’s had a paraeducator attend classes with him — in his case, the same paraeducator.
Kelly Swaleson, a divorced mother of four, remembers their first day together.
“Kennedy was so tiny, sitting in his little wheelchair,” she said. “He was sweet and shy, didn’t like to get his hands dirty — and still doesn’t.”
From that initial meeting at Skyline Elementary, the two were almost inseparable for the next 13 years at school.
And that’s a record they share.
Last year, Tacoma Public Schools employed 109 paraeducators — staff members who accompany disabled students through their school day, helping with everything from note-taking to mobility.
None, other than Swaleson, had been assigned to the same student through his or her entire K-12 education.
In fact, no one at Tacoma Public Schools can recall a student-paraeducator team ever lasting from kindergarten all the way through high school.
“Relatively few of our students have a one-on-one paraeducator. Those that do have more than one throughout their school years for multiple reasons,” schools spokesman Dan Voelpel said.
“The primary reason is attrition — paraeducators come and go for a variety of reasons,” he said. “They take a promotion or new position or switch their hours of work.”
The result of Kors and Swaleson spending so much time together is a multifaceted relationship.
“Kelly has been Kennedy’s paraprofessional, his mentor, his teacher, his nurse, his mother, his father, and most importantly his friend,” said Carolyn Kors, Kennedy’s mother.
How was it the two ended up breaking the student-paraeducator mold without straining school rules about maintaining boundaries?
Simple. They had each other.
‘FORGET THE BODY, WORK ON HIS MIND’
Kennedy Kors was born 10 weeks early, a premature infant whose heart kept stopping.
“It was 60 days before we knew he’d live, and he was on a feeding tube for the first year,” his father, Jeff, said.
The boy had cerebral palsy, an incurable condition that affects movement and balance, can include seizures and often impacts speech and hearing.
“When a child is born, all you want them to do is walk,” Carolyn Kors said. “That had to change. It wasn’t all positives — different physical therapists told us he can’t do this, he can’t do that.
“Finally, we said ‘let’s forget the body and work on his mind. It doesn’t matter if he ever walks.’ ”
Kennedy wasn’t much different from many children. He spent most of his time with his parents and older sister, Madison. He watched SpongeBob Squarepants episodes over and over.
“I watched it so much I’d see an episode again and know what lines were coming,” he said. “I’d laugh before anything funny happened, because I knew what was coming.”
Now 18, Kennedy’s sense of humor is described by one Wilson teacher as “a very dry wit.”
It may be genetic.
Last year, when the family vacationed at Seaside, Oregon, Kennedy’s power wheelchair occasionally outpaced the bicycles used by his parents as they rode along the boardwalk.
“My dad yelled, ‘Stop him! He stole my wallet,’ ” Kennedy said. “But no one stopped me. My dad is always saying stuff like that.”
‘KENNEDY NEEDED SOMEONE’
Kelly Swaleson graduated from Wilson High School 37 years before Kennedy. She wanted to be a teacher.
“My whole life, my interest has been children. All I wanted to do was be a teacher. I did the next best thing, and worked at a preschool,” she said. “Put me among kids, I’m in my element.”
Each of her own children is grown, with the youngest a year older than Kennedy.
After years of working with schoolchildren, Swaleson became a paraeducator.
“Now, you need an associate degree, but when I began I was grandfathered in for being close enough in education and experience,” Swaleson said.
She didn’t take the job for the money.
Paraeducators can be paid, depending upon the student, with local, state or federal funds. Last year, the minimum hourly wage was $12.10, the maximum $22.02.
Few paraeducators are contracted to work as many as six hours a day. Kennedy’s needs required a seven-hour day from Swaleson.
“It’s not really a living wage because it’s not full-time,” she said. “I know paraeducators who have three jobs. I have two. I work 15 hours a week with my church, Discovery Community, as the assistant children’s ministry director.”
Initially, Swaleson worked with four children, including Kennedy.
“Some moved away, some didn’t qualify for paraeducators after a year or two, but Kennedy needed someone,” Swaleson said.
“Every year you have a meeting with school officials, look at needs of the students. I don’t remember it ever being a question of not working with Kennedy, but it’s up to the school. Do they all feel it’s a good match?”
She and Kennedy were always a good match.
‘I COULD TALK TO HER’
From the beginning, Swaleson was aware of Kennedy’s obvious physical challenges. From the beginning, she looked beyond them.
“What I always saw in Kennedy was potential,” she said of the student who would finish high school with a 3.88 grade point average. “He has brains.”
Kennedy remembers the year their relationship began to grow.
“I probably started really connecting with her in third grade. That’s when I remember our conversations changing,” he said. “I remember we could share a laugh. I could talk to her. We were friends.”
Until the last two years of high school, Kennedy didn’t have a motorized wheelchair. Swaleson pushed him through jammed hallways from classroom to cafeteria.
The boy’s shyness made it difficult to form friendships and often confused classmates.
“I had kids come up and ask me what Kennedy was like, and I’d always say, ‘Talk to him,’ ” Swaleson said. “He’s noise-sensitive, so being in a crowded cafeteria, for instance, was hard on him. We’d find a little nook and eat lunch.”
Through elementary school and middle school, Kennedy and Swaleson attended each class together. Because he cannot write notes by hand and can have trouble processing charts and graphics, she took over those duties.
“Kelly would take notes for me, then make a study guide for me before a test,” Kennedy said. “She was really organized; there was no fluff in the notes.
“I wanted to stay in general education classes, and without her I wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
On occasion, she was his bodyguard.
“I’ve had a couple of people who didn’t treat me with respect,” Kennedy said. “Kelly had my back, but it was never a big issue.”
If need be, she’d take on teachers.
“Over the years, there were a couple of times when teachers tried to make her do work for them instead of for Kennedy,” Jeff Kors said. “Or they didn’t listen when she’d explain what Kennedy needed.
“If she had to challenge a teacher, she would. And the school would back her.”
The toughest transition for Kennedy was going from middle school to high school — and it wasn’t just that the classes were more difficult.
“My hormones were all out of whack,” he said. “My attitude changed, and Kelly could tell. My family could tell.”
Asked about those changes, Swaleson laughed.
“He started telling me these hilarious pickup lines,” she said. “He’d never use them, but they made us laugh.”
Kennedy grins at that memory.
“I’d tell you, but for interviews I dial my humor down to PG,” he said.
‘LIKE ONE OF MY OWN KIDS’
Kennedy’s sister, Madison, is 19 and admires him.
“My brother chills. He doesn’t let anything get him too worked up,” said Madison, a student at Tacoma Community College.
Carolyn said her son has never complained about life in a wheelchair. Jeff said he’s never seen his son angry.
That made Kennedy smile.
“I am angry at times, but I don’t show it. Anger isn’t worth my time,” he said. “If I’m upset, I don’t tell anyone. I keep it to my two favorite people — myself and I. We’re so close they can finish my sentences for me.”
Kennedy, Swaleson said, has the ability to tune out the world when he wants to.
One aspect of her job was to keep the pressure of school from overwhelming him.
“There’s a ton of work, and he’s exhausted by the end of the day,” she said.
“I can tell when he starts to fade. I know when he has more in there and when to pull back.”
When Kennedy graduated this month, Swaleson was there along with his mother, father, sister, various aunts, uncles and cousins.
All were aware of the bittersweet nature of the celebration, the end of a long chapter in his life.
Kennedy will begin classes at TCC this fall, majoring in psychology.
Swaleson is looking for a job.
“Right now, I’m displaced, an unpositioned para in a pool of them,” she said. “I love what I do; it’s a passion. But I’m 54, and I don’t have a job for next year. You look online, apply for positions and hope for an interview.
“I’m also applying for office positions. Unfortunately, it comes down to not taking a cut in pay.”
After his graduation ceremony, Kennedy spent a few quiet moments alone with the woman who had been beside him since he was 5 years old.
“I told her how big a difference she made in my life, how much I appreciate what she did for me and who she is,” Kennedy said.
“I worked hard in school. Kelly would never let me slack off. She always said she knew what I was capable of. I think I know now what I’m capable of, too.”
Swaleson held it together throughout the evening, until the drive home.
“I blubbered like a baby in the car,” she said. “Kennedy is like one of my own kids to me. We raise our kids to give them wings.”