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Double take on early education Six sets of twins, plus set of triplets, multiply challenges for teacher

If the pink coats didn't push Sister Barbara Whelan over the edge, not even two more sets of twins are likely to do the job.

The preschool teacher at St. Mary's Elementary School in Lancaster was pretty good at managing five sets of twins and a set of triplets in her classes last year.

That was until the day that Elizabeth and Rachel Kamrowski and Alina and Nadia Schnitzel all came to school wearing the same pink coat in the same size. She brought them to the door at dismissal, each in a pink coat, but she told their parents she had no idea if they were wearing the right one.

"I said, 'You can't do this to me,' " Whelan recalled.

As it turns out, last year was just a primer for this year. One set of twins has moved on to kindergarten, but two more have enrolled, for a total of 60 children in the 3- and 4-year-old preschool classes. Whelan teaches all four classes, meeting in the morning and afternoons on alternate days.

Returning to school with the Kamrowskis and Schnitzels are 4-year-olds Miranda and Tyler Leach, Blake and Evan Gallo, and Brooke, Matthew and Travis Bauer. New to the school this year are Jackson and Savannah Hunter, 3, and Cameron and Emma Plotnicki, 4.

Twins get a lot of attention, and Kim Kamrowski said getting to know other twins has been good for her daughters.

"I thought it was just a neat experience for the girls to be with all these other multiples," she said.

"I don't treat the twins any differently than I treat the other children," said Whelan, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis who has been teaching for 45 years.

But she does rely on a few methods to remember who is who, and she looks for clues each day.

"It was difficult at first because I had to find ways to tell them apart," she said.

Miranda and Tyler were easy, because one is a girl and the other a boy, and Brooke is the sister in the triplets.

With the others, she made a mental note that Blake has brown hair and Evan has black hair -- even though remembering a child with black hair and a name starting with "Bl" would have been easier.

Distinguishing identical or nearly identical siblings meant figuring out at the beginning of each class that Matthew, for example, was wearing a brown shirt while Travis had a green shirt, or that Elizabeth had a pink ribbon in her hair while Rachel had a purple one.

"Then you'd think purple all day," Whelan said.

She knows that in one set of twins, one has a freckle on her nose and one doesn't. She just has to be close enough to see their faces.

"I look for something," she said.

When all else fails, she might have to call both names.

Parents are understanding. Susan Schnitzel said Whelan has worked with Nadia when she intended to work with Alina.

"Then we found out Nadia needed glasses, and that really helped," Schnitzel said.

A few miscues don't get in the way of learning.

"She's wonderful. She's been very loving; our girls just adore her," Schnitzel said.

Sometimes the children in the class can't tell a set of twins apart, and that's when Whelan tries to reinforce that everyone is an individual. She likes to compare children to a garden of flowers, where every flower is unique, every flower is beautiful and every flower is different.

"How could I not thank God for the blessing of being a teacher, because that's what you've got to look forward to every day?" Whelan said.

e-mail: bobrien@buffnews.com

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