As we prepare for a season of holiday cheer and annual gift-giving, and I conclude this yearlong series of columns “All Means All,” I’d like to reflect for just a moment and celebrate some of the most valuable and successful students in our district — beginning with a story about a courageous and determined young man with special needs named Hampton Shuler.
Hampton is a sixth-grade student with autism at Kennedy Middle School who has worked extremely hard to fully utilize his own personal gift – mathematics.
Hampton, who is primarily non-verbal, performs assignments and takes assessments alongside his peers in a general education math classroom. He has been doing this for some time, and was recognized in June for his fighting spirit by his former school family, at Chukker Creek, with a Triumph Award. The award features a golden calculator, Hampton’s tool of choice, along with a quote credited to renowned science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, and a very special message.
The plaque reads:
“When one teaches, two learn.” – Heinlein
Thank you, Hampton, for being the one who taught us.
What a powerful message Hampton’s accomplishments offer to us: when disbelief is suspended, and when students are placed in a positive environment and teamed with a support network, possibilities become limitless. While Hampton’s story is unique, his experience in our schools is not.
Hampton’s story also highlights how far we have come as a society, and as a community, in serving the special needs of students with disabilities. In a matter of decades, we have moved from no services, to segregated services in which students with disabilities were educated at separate locations, and now, finally, to an era of inclusive practices which are integrated into the fabric of each of our school buildings.
Through these decades, Aiken County has been at the forefront of progressive thought and action, providing educational opportunities to students with disabilities prior to federal mandates. And while this is an inclusive track record we are proud of, it also serves as daily motivation to push forward because all students deserve a high-quality education. All Means All.
We serve 3,291 children with disabilities who are supported through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and another 853 who are protected by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides federal funding to local and state agencies guaranteeing students with special needs a “free, appropriate public education” alongside their peers.
For our purposes, this law serves children from age 3 to 21 who are identified as having a disability, including students faced with deafness, deaf-blindness, developmental delay, autism, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, speech or language impairments, a specific learning disability, a traumatic brain injury with visual impairment and other health issues.
One of the primary services associated with IDEA is the development of an Individual Education Program document (IEP) for each student.
Students who are identified as having a physical or mental impairment which hinders their participation in a major life activity are protected under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Coverage under Section 504 protects students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and other attention and learning disorders. 504 plans provide specific accommodations to assist with an individual student’s learning within a general education classroom.
The culture surrounding education and children with disabilities has fundamentally changed in Aiken County. Today, children with disabilities in our district have the opportunity to spread their wings and enjoy a more traditional educational experience through inclusive and interactive programs such as Buddy Clubs and Project Unify events, which bring students of all backgrounds and ability levels together.
Our special needs students are accepted and valued for their unique contributions – their enthusiasm, their performance, their determination, their drive.
This semester, we’ve watched as students with disabilities have blossomed in ways unique to their own personalities and according to their own talents and interests. At Midland Valley High School, Damon Rushton was named as the school’s Homecoming King; Damien Dennis, a former Ridge Spring-Monetta Middle/High School student and current custodian with our district, was named as the state’s Outstanding Student of the Year by the S.C. Division of Career Development and Transition; and a group of special needs students at North Augusta High School served as football team managers and traveled with the Jackets across the state as valued teammates.
Let’s meet 2017 with the same bravery, passion and dedication that former and current staff members and school-based educators displayed in bringing us forward to the present day, when students with special needs are celebrated and supported in an educational environment dedicated to their success and individual enrichment.
(The writer is Aiken County, S.C., school superintendent.)