Sandwich School District 430 special education teacher ‘found his calling just by happenstance’

Jason VanPelt teaches special needs students at Prairie View Elementary School in Sandwich. (Photo provided)

The VanPelt family tree has deep roots in Sandwich and in District 430.

Like his parents, Jason VanPelt has spent all his life in Sandwich. He grew up attending District 430 schools, graduating from Sandwich High School. After earning his bachelor’s degree from Eastern Illinois University in 2007, he returned to his hometown.

For 11 years, he taught at Newark Elementary School in Newark south of Sandwich while coaching football and baseball at Sandwich High School. In spring 2018, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Aurora University.

In 2019, he left Newark Elementary to begin teaching special education at Prairie View Elementary and has continued to coach at the high school. VanPelt currently is the head baseball coach and assistant football coach.

Growing up, VanPelt never thought he would become a teacher, even when his mother, Diane VanPelt, started teaching at Prairie View when he was in high school.

“I found my calling just by happenstance,” he said.

In addition to his mother, who taught in Sandwich for 20 years, his aunt was a teacher in Newark whom he worked with at the beginning of his teaching career.

But despite his family connections with teaching, it was his baseball coach at Sandwich High School, Derek Avery, who helped VanPelt decide on his career path when he suggested he get a teaching degree and come back to Sandwich High School and coach with him.

VanPelt returned from college and coached with Avery for five years before Avery moved on to a different position.

He also never expected to go into special education. He knew he wanted to get his master’s degree, but was uncertain about an area of specialization.

He recalled always getting along well with the special needs students he had in his general education classes at Newark Elementary and said he found it rewarding to work with them.

Shortly after earning his master’s degree, VanPelt was hired to teach at Prairie View Elementary. At the same time, Prairie View was introducing the STARS 123 program, and he was asked to lead the team of educators.

The STARS 123 program is directed toward first, second and third grade students with autism or other special needs that require different methods of communication or specialized curriculum. There are six students in the STARS 123 program, and VanPelt said the team has seen a lot of success working with the families of the students to create an environment in which they will be successful.

“We have a great team of paraprofessionals and therapists that work with all these kids and really help them to reach their potential,” he said. “All students are capable of much more than it might seem at first.”

VanPelt said the pandemic has been hard on students. He said students of all ages have missed out on so many experiences that would be typical in the past, from the elementary school field trips to high school sporting events.

He said it has been a little nerve-racking for him, too, thinking about his students and how the pandemic has affected their lives.

“Hopefully,” he said, “It’s something that everybody will be able to overcome, but it’s been tough on all students.”

VanPelt said not too much has changed in District 430 since he was student, although technology has become a big part of the curriculum in recent years, transforming the way many things are done in schools, from homework assignments to communicating with students and parents.

“You have to use it to your advantage rather than let it become a distraction,” VanPelt said.

One thing he said has changed is that he no longer has to worry about kids making noise on the bus, as they are all engrossed in their phones.

“Kids come to us with more social and emotional problems than they once had,” VanPelt said, “Especially with the internet, they’re being exposed to a lot more than when I was a kid.”

He added that students’ mental health is something everyone needs to keep an eye on, especially after the past two years of the pandemic.

“Kids won’t always remember what you taught them, but they’ll remember how you made them feel,” VanPelt said.

VanPelt said he feels very fortunate to have had the students he has over the years.

“They taught me a lot about myself,” he said, “And, in turn, I’ve been able to better serve my students with what I’ve learned from them.”

VanPelt said he couldn’t be happier with his career decisions and has no plans to leave Sandwich and District 430. He is focused on growing the STARS 123 program and continuing to coach.

VanPelt is not the only Sandwich “lifer” teaching in the area. He has remained close with several friends he went to grade school with who now teach at District 430′s Dummer Elementary and Sandwich Middle School.

At times, VanPelt said he likes to reflect over the different, and some not so different, paths he and his classmates have taken and how they all ended up back together. He reiterated that he found his calling by happenstance, but added, “Sometimes the universe unfolds just as it should.”


Jason VanPelt said that the teachers he had growing up influenced him far more than any book or movie ever has. He said if he had to choose one, “Remember the Titans” was a film he held dear. Fitting, for a high school football coach.