‘Oh, the places they’ll go’

Inclusion key to student success for special-needs education ‘Dream Team’ at IR

Date Published: 
March 24, 2017

Coastal Point • Tripp Colonell: Xiomara Weaver, Jackie Johnson and the River Café crew are ready to start the day.Coastal Point • Tripp Colonell: Xiomara Weaver, Jackie Johnson and the River Café crew are ready to start the day.It’s 8 a.m. at Indian River High School. The bells have rung. The morning announcements have been made. And the River Café is officially open for business.

Today, on the menu: coffee, tea and complimentary homemade cupcakes with green icing, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.

Senior Josh Timmons makes his way down the school’s history-lined hallways in his official green-and-gold River Café apron, pushing his cart, without paying much attention to the cart’s one stubborn wheel, wielding the day’s orders and approaching his first stop.

This is the final task for the River Café each Tuesday and Thursday morning — and Josh’s favorite. He greets each customer with their own personalized order, makes the sale, stamps frequent-customer cards and, of course, tops it all off with his signature Timmons’ touch — whether it be in the form of inside joke, friendly pat on the shoulder or well-timed smile.

Josh is having a good time with the job he’s been selected for today, and it shows on the faces of the students and faculty members he happens to meet along his way. He’s particularly popular with the ladies in Mrs. Freeman’s first-period animal-science class. At the same time, he’s all business this morning. There are still orders to be delivered, after all.

The last leg of Josh’s four-wheeled tour is saved, perhaps purposefully, for last. It’s half-way through first period, and IR head soccer coach and special-needs educator Steve Kilby is ready for his personally-labeled Thursday-morning cup of joe.

The two know each other well, as Josh has come up through the River Soccer Club and the soccer program at IR, and their particular bond is as undeniable as it is enjoyable to everyone else in the room. Wristwatches are pointed to with wry smirks. More light-hearted jokes are traded. Soccer discussions are inevitably had, and laughs are shared and echo throughout the classroom.

There isn’t too much longer allotted for back-and-forth banter, Josh knows. One fast move and he’s gone — off to meet the rest of his classmates and help get everything cleaned up and ready to go for the next day’s business, with just enough time to spare before the bell. Time for shop class. Time to learn.

That is how a typical Tuesday and Thursday start off for the River Café crew, made up of students with special needs at Indian River High School — the aim being to not only learn and develop skills for both everyday life and the business world, in a real-world setting, but to be better included as part of the Indian River High School community.

They get to plan and design the menu, collect the orders, brew the coffee and bake the goods — including, of course, the Café’s homemade hit apple fritters — then deliver them, all on their own terms.

“I truly believe that if a student is involved in something in school, they feel connected. It makes them want to keep on going,” said Special Education Coordinator Sally Benner of the special-education philosophy at IR.

So far, that philosophy’s proof is in the homemade apple fritters, with students already making unmistakable strides.

“There are students that, when they first came to me, they were really shy. But with River Café, they’ve gained a lot of confidence — they go out there and deliver on their own,” said Jackie Johnson, who heads up both River Café and the school’s Intensive Learning Center.

“I like how we put the decafs in the machine and then we have to pass it on to the next person, and they stir it and then we deliver it,” said senior Keonte Mumford of getting to work together as a team. “If you see someone struggling with something, you try to help them out, like someone else showed you.”

While it may seem nothing too out of the ordinary, the River Café is just one of a new profusion of special-education practices at IR proving instrumental in special-needs students adjusting both in and out of the classroom, as well as in their ultimate success.

Collectively, special-needs educators at Indian River are blazing the trail for creating more opportunities for their students, all the while shedding new light on the world of special education and working toward tearing down societal misconceptions regarding students with individual education programs (IEPs).

They want the community to know that, just because a student may face a certain difficulty in the learning process, it doesn’t mean that they can’t set out to do exactly what they dream of doing, continually testing out new and out-of-the-box approaches until those dreams are inevitably realized. Simply put, at Indian River High School, there is always a way.

“They may have difficulties with certain areas, but they can learn — as long as we provide the right accommodations, the right instructions and the right modifications,” Benner explained. “The good thing about Indian River High School is that the teachers work together to create a program that will work for their students. These kids are in education, and they’re just overcoming some difficulties they may have in life. They work through it. These are the kids that just don’t give up. They all have ‘can do’ attitudes.”

“Having people that just believe in them — I think that’s huge for these kids,” added Special Education Coordinator Julene Williamson. “The whole point is just to level the playing field. I have a vision disability. I put contacts in, and it evens it out for me. These kids just need some extra things, just like everybody else in the world needs extra things.”

‘Spreading the word to end the word’

The movement is gaining steam.

Earlier this month, the Indian River School District hosted their first ever “Special Education Week” in an effort to promote and celebrate special-education programs in the district and the teachers that make it all possible.

Students from the district were selected as “special-education ambassadors” and got the chance to participate in the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign, attending conferences and learning more about different learning obstacles that some of their classmates may be facing.

The national campaign proposed a pledge to eliminate the “R-word” as a potential catalyst in developing a more accepting attitude toward students with special needs and special education in general, while highlighting the accomplishments of some well-known public figures facing specific adversities.

“We were learning about people with disabilities, the history of disabilities,” said IR sophomore ambassador Kaleb Harrington. “I took it as, no matter what disability you have, you can still go for what you want to go for in life.”

“I think that’s the whole purpose of Special Education Week, is to show that we’re not embarrassed, we’re proud,” said Benner. “When people hear the term ‘special education,’ they assume a negative connotation, and it’s not. We need to show the community what special education is all about.”

While student ambassadors for the State Transition Cadre, such as Harrington, Breanna Sassi and Destiny Van Dyke Forbes, were proud to be chosen to represent their school in the movement, acceptance at Indian River High School has never seemed to be an issue.

“There are a lot of good kids here who do a lot of really good things,” said Williamson. “They’re accepting. They try to understand. They notice if someone is different, but they just accept it. They stick together and try to look out for each other.”

Never was that acceptance more on the forefront than when the school hosted its first Unified basketball game in front of a packed house in between the girls’ and boys’ varsity basketball double-header against Sussex Central High School on Feb. 9.

Unified through Unified

While IR athletic director Todd Fuhrmann has been a longtime advocate of introducing more Unified sports at the school and throughout the Henlopen Athletic Conference, getting started with track-and-field two years ago, introducing basketball didn’t come about until he was approached by Timmons and Mumford with the suggestion last fall.

After hearing the news, a number of varsity athletes, including Sammi Whelen, Kaylee Hall, Maggie Ford and Zion Howard, quickly jumped on board to help coach the teams, happy to make it possible for Unified athletes to suit up and get the limelight in front of the crowd, just like any other athlete at Indian River.

“It made me feel like I was a part of something. It was really cool,” said senior David Richter, who scored a game-tying basket in the game. “It was different, because a lot of the people there playing I knew, but we never really played basketball with each other, we never really did any team activities, but we still knocked it out of the park.”

Before putting on his jersey for the game, Richter didn’t have much in the way of green-and-gold gear. But admittedly, the experience changed his attitude toward showing his school spirit and allowed him to come to terms with what he previously perceived as his own limitations.

“It made me realize that there’s a whole lot more to do than just going home at the end of the day,” he said. “The cool thing is, now that I’m able to do sports here, I feel like I can do other things. I have no boundaries of what I can and can’t do now.”

Next year, Fuhrmann plans on adding flag football and developing a six-game Unified basketball season in which Indian River would compete with other teams in the Henlopen Conference, furthering the inclusion opportunities for Unified athletes and students such as Timmons, who scored his first goal for the varsity soccer team this past fall, and sophomore Patrick Callow, who competed at the Henlopen Conference championships for the swim team this past winter.

But sports isn’t the only place where students with special needs are getting more and more involved.

Getting involved, being included

Wherever you look, there they are.

No matter their potential setback, students with IEPs are getting involved and staying involved at school. They’re taking AP classes, giving speeches at pep rallies and end of season banquets, reading and discussing great American novels, including “The Great Gatsby,” earning nursing certificates, attending cooking classes to prepare for culinary careers or just being regular students. Just like the rest of their classmates.

They’re being encouraged by social studies teachers Leona Freeman, Orlando Kelly and Jordan O’Boyle, math teachers Jenna Sinnamom and Kim Martin, science teachers Stacey Holladay and Corinne Keller, English teachers Chantelle Ashford and Sharon Breita, and even their classmates, to try new things.

And they are.

Thomas Dean recently landed the role as “Montague” in the drama club’s production of “Romeo & Juliet” last month and plays in the school marching band. Mumford frequents the IR airwaves as the voice of the morning announcements.

Octavio Cuenca Maldonado has had a hearing impairment his entire life, but that didn’t stop him from getting accepted to attend Gallaudet University next fall. Richter is an active member of the JORTC and is currently working on a new single for the school’s spring concert and an eventual country music career in Nashville.

With the right guidance and the right plan, anything that a student decides they want to do is being done. The possibilities are unending and the limits do not exist.

The guidance doesn’t end at graduation, either. Whether it be going to college, entering the workforce or enrolling in programs such as TAPP (Transitioning & Parallel Program) and POW&R (Productive Opportunities for Work & Recreation), the special-education program at IR is making sure that their students find the path that best fits their individual needs, and the road they want to travel.

‘Oh, all the places they’ve gone’

There have been countless stories of students with IEPs graduating from Indian River and going on to live the lives they want to live, but here are two:

After being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder), Jacob Butch was struggling to adjust when he first got to Indian River for his freshman year of high school. He was looking for acceptance from his classmates, but he was also finding it hard to come by, with the social obstacles that Asperger’s was putting in his way.

Enter IR head soccer coach Steve Kilby with an idea that he thought might help. Little did Butch know then, but Kilby’s suggestion would be the one that he needed to be able to adapt and develop along with the rest of his classmates.

“I was having trouble. People didn’t seem to understand me very well, so I had a hard time making friends,” said Butch. “I had Mr. Kilby as a teacher. He took me under his wing my freshman year, made me a manager for the boys and girls soccer teams, and I ended up making a lot of friends that way. It helped me grow a lot.”

Butch went on to use the soccer team as an outlet. He started doing better in his classes, better in his personal life. He went on to join the band and perform in variety shows at school, all the while embracing his new role as a manager and having people depend on him. He had finally found a way to be included. He was finally part of a team.

“I made a lot of friends, and we consider each other like family,” Butch said of the soccer team that he continues to stay in contact with to this day, recently enjoying a reunion of sorts at “The Mixer” for IR soccer alumni held last month. “We’re always there for each other if we need it.”

By Butch’s senior year, and after four years managing the team, Kilby had another idea. It was Butch’s birthday, and the Indians were playing Laurel. He was getting a hotdog at the concession stand when one of his teammates called him over with the news and tossed him a jersey. Jacob Butch was going in.

“I didn’t know what was going on. They gave me a full goalie uniform and said, ‘Go warm up.’ My name was announced, and then I was running out to the goal,” he recalled.

Former IR goalkeeper “Sam Cannon walked out with me gave me a big old hug and gave me his gloves to wear for the game and everything. That was one of my best birthdays. I’ll keep that moment cherished and treasured with me for a very long time.”

Butch eventually went on to graduate and land two jobs in Hershey, Pa. — one delivering doughnuts in the morning and the other using his new found social skills as a McDonald’s employee in the afternoons.

He’s currently working on a music career and toward becoming more independent by saving up for his own place — success that he’s convinced was made possible by coaches and teachers, such as Kilby, and the inclusion-oriented special-education programs at what he’s proud to call his alma mater.

“There’s a saying that goes around, ‘If at first you don’t succeed at something, try again.’ That’s what happened with me. I learned what I needed to do. I went with the team to every single game, eventually earned my way to manager/coach,” Butch said, citing IR assistant coach Brandt Mais as his inspiration to learn the game from a coaching perspective. “IR is one of the best schools that I’ve been to. If it wasn’t for Kilby, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Another success story is that of Hope Pearce.

When Hope was diagnosed with autism, her father, Rodger Pearce, was somewhat relieved. Now they knew what they were up against. They also knew that choosing the high school best suited for Hope’s individual needs would be pivotal in her future development. After considering their options, they decided to use school choice for her to attend Indian River.

“Mrs. Benner was the first person I met. I knew right away that she cared, and she had never even met Hope before,” Rodger Pearce said of his initial tour of IR. “The teachers were very receptive to any small issue that may have come up and seeing how they can best approach things for Hope.”

After getting the help she needed in her classes, however, Hope still needed some help in the way of making friends. She had always wanted to be invited to a birthday party, but so far, there hadn’t been any invitations sent her way.

Once again, enter IR head soccer coach Steve Kilby. After enrolling in Kilby’s social studies class her sophomore year, she got a different kind of invitation — one that would change her life forever. Kilby wanted to know if Hope would be interested in managing the girls’ soccer team.

“They included her as one of the girls, they wrapped her up in their arms, and she was part of the club,” Rodger Pearce said of Hope being embraced immediately by the team. “Soccer gave her a lot of confidence all around, in every aspect of her life.”

While Hope would go on to continue managing and to be equally as accepted by the boys’ soccer team as well, it was in her junior year that Kilby had yet another idea. After noticing her softly singing the national anthem to herself in the hallway one afternoon, he asked if maybe she might like to perform the anthem before a soccer game. Live. In front of the crowd. She thought that he was joking at first, but far from it.

After weeks of preparation, the day finally came, and Hope was justifiably nervous. It was Senior Night for the Indians. The ceremonies were over with, and the Indian River High School soccer stadium was more packed than usual, fans ready for the national anthem and the start of the game. There was Hope, standing in the middle of the field with her microphone and her iPad, standing in the spotlight all alone — until she wasn’t.

“The girls all gathered around her — that was a life-changing moment for her, and I can’t state that enough,” said Rodger Pearce of the moment the entire girls’ soccer team surrounded Hope in support, just as she was about to perform. “It was one of those moments. They made her feel special even amongst state championship-caliber team.”

The performance was followed by a standing ovation. High fives. Hugs. Congratulations. Even some tears.

When she graduated last spring, Hope went on to enroll in the POW&R program and to continue working at her job at Kilwins, a specialty chocolate store in Rehoboth Beach. But her share of the spotlight has far from diminished, as she continues to flourish using the skills and confidence she developed through soccer and the special-education program at IR.

Recently, Hope got up in front of the state senate’s Joint Finance Committee to let them know how POW&R has impacted her life and why state disability funding matters. She explained her experience working at Kilwins, and how the store’s chocolate-covered strawberries were her mother’s favorite.

When she was finished with her speech, Hope received yet another standing ovation and personal thank-yous for sharing her story from chairmen, officials and even state senators.

“I told her that I was going up to talk to the folks about POW&R, and she said, ‘Wow — can I talk, too?’” Rodger Pearce recalled. “I gave my spiel and just gave a quick success story. I shared her story — she was right after me — and it was all Hope, it was all her words. They were all on the edge of their seats listening to Hope.”

It’s moments such as that one that make Rodger Pearce appreciate the teachers and students at Indian River High School, the ones who have made a difference in Hope’s life and his own, just by doing their best to become a part of it.

“Every teacher she had had a part in where she is today, and I don’t say that lightly. It was a group effort. I called them ‘The Dream Team.’ They meant it. It wasn’t just something that they had to do because it was required,” said Pearce. “Here, Coach Kilby has got a state championship caliber team, and he’s a championship caliber coach, and he’s looking out for my daughter to be part of it. They really do care. Every single one of them.”

The symbiosis of caring

While success stories like the ones of Hope Pearce and Jacob Butch are reward in themselves for the special-education staff at Indian River, it’s often that their students end up doing just as much for them as they make it their mission to do themselves, when “paying it forward” comes back around full circle, often at times that can be deemed nothing short of serendipitous.

“You have a bad day, and then you get a card from one of your students. It’s just little things like that,” said Benner of the unique bond between teachers and their students. “They end up doing just as much for us as you try to do for them.”

“This is my first year here. When I first started, they showed me where all the classes were. They know everything. They know everybody,” added first-year English teacher Abbey Quillen. “It made me feel very welcomed.”

Whether it’s a thoughtful card, a thank-you or something as simple as a smile, it is those kinds of everyday rewards that keep the special-education teachers at Indian River determined to try to better the lives of their students and continue the search for new opportunities that might help them along the way.

And while the program has made strides even in just the last year, there’s still further to go. Behind the vision of Heather Statler and the Indian River school board’s new special-education task force, resources are being shared throughout the district. New strategies are being tested, tried and discovered — which ones work, which ones don’t quite as well.

“We have so many resources in the Indian River School District that I just think that we have to share them, to not be our own self-contained unit because there’s good things going on everywhere in the district,” said Benner.

Putting on events such as Special Education Week is just the beginning, as pioneer teachers and board members throughout the school district find themselves more determined than ever to change the culture surrounding special-needs education.

And while only time will tell what’s next for their crusade, one thing is for certain: “The Dream Team” is all in it together, for the kids, well aware that their job will never be done and that even the little things can make a difference.

“The teachers here are really good about going above and beyond — they all do something special for the kids,” said Williamson. “It’s the little positive things they do that mean the most. They go a lot further than they might realize.”

It’s 8 a.m. at Indian River High School. The bells have rung. Senior Keonte Mumford has just graced the airwaves with his signature smooth D.J. stylings over the morning announcements. One fast move and he’s gone — off to join the rest of his classmates and embark on a new day.

There’s coffee to be made. Personalized orders to be delivered. Smiles to be spread and laughs to be shared and echoed throughout classrooms. There’s new friendships to be formed, stereotypes to come crumbling down and new hurdles to be leapt over. There’s new dreams to be realized, and it all starts right now.

The River Café is officially open for business. Who knows what will be on the menu for today?