This week local schools are starting a new year. It’s always a time for excitement across our communities. Optimism is high for our children and their success.
Parents also grapple with how and where their children should be educated. There are many options, and making the right decision can sometimes make for sleepless nights.
I’ll make a case for public education from my personal experience by telling the story of my youngest son, Jon.
All three of my children went to public school. What I have discovered is that, in any educational system, a child’s success depends on the educator’s dedication, the parents’ dedication and, most importantly, the student’s dedication. It is a team effort.
My children had a variety of successes and failures. For me, there is no better example of a student’s success being dependent upon a team than my son Jon.
This is not a story I’m telling you so I can brag about my kid, but a story of personal struggle and his overcoming great obstacles with the help of a team.
Jon was born July 21, 1998 via C-Section, three weeks before his due date. He was 11 pounds, 3 ounces, and his birth put his mother’s health at grave risk.
The doctor predicted if he would have been full term, he could have weighed in the neighborhood of 15 lbs. Four days prior to his scheduled birth, my wife was admitted to the hospital where we lived at the time, in Ulysses, Kansas. She had been diagnosed with gestational diabetes, and her blood sugar levels were in the danger zone. Everything seemed to be under control. My oldest son, six at the time, was in Colorado with my mom, while our daughter — our oldest, 11 at the time — was with me.
Around 2 a.m. on Saturday morning, two days prior to Jon’s delivery, I received a devastating phone call. My mother, who lived in Delta, suffered a major heart attack — it would prove to be fatal. She was only 58. At that time, all I knew was she was being airlifted to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction. The news I was getting from my sisters wasn’t good. I was so racked with grief I couldn’t think straight. So, I leaned on my wife and daughter. We were all very close with my mother, and I know Jon had to be feeling the stress of his mother’s grief while in the womb. I truly believed all these factors played a major role in causing a disability Jon would have to manage the rest of his life.
Something is not right
When Jon was in his preschool years, and we would teach him basic things like colors, the alphabet or counting, we noticed the lessons weren’t sticking. His daycare, which had a preschool curriculum, was also concerned. I just thought Jon wasn’t trying hard enough. My wife insisted on having him tested. So, she did.
The tests were done while I was away on a business trip. My wife picked me up from the airport and on the 20-minute ride home she gave me the news that Jon was handicapped with a variety of learning disabilities. I just remember staring out of the passenger window of our car not knowing what to do next. For a parent, it was devastating; I hurt for my child.
Placing faith in the school system
We thought about private schools for Jon, but, quite frankly, we couldn’t afford them. Having moved home to Delta to be near my dad after my mom passed, we put our faith (and Jon) in the hands of the Delta County School District. Jon was tested again before entering kindergarten, and he was placed on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
We met with his teachers and counselors to find out the best course of action. During the initial IEP meeting, we were to identify goals for Jon, and the first one I had them put in the plan was for him to graduate with the same class he entered kindergarten with. They were scheduled to graduate in 2017. I still see the faces of his teachers at that meeting. It was as if I had asked the impossible.
Team Jon is formed
So, the team was in place — my wife, me, Jon and the educators. The names and faces of the educators would change over the course of his school career. Two in particular would stand out. Joey Hancock came to be Jon’s special education teacher when he entered the third grade. Not much had changed in Jon’s development; he was still well behind his classmates. He spent 93 percent of his class time in special education while the other 7 percent was PE and music. Joey was young — late 20s or early 30s — but he made a connection with Jon. One thing Jon didn’t lack was effort. He wanted to do great, and that really was half the battle. Joey recognized Jon’s effort and would place him in leadership roles in his class. He would praise him for his successes and encourage him in his failures. When we met for Jon’s IEP in his fifth-grade year he was still only with his class 7 percent of the time. Joey wanted to make a change with Jon but wasn’t sure what to do. His homeroom teacher at the time, Janel Swisher, noticed that at the end of the day Jon would sometimes return to her class early, which was when his homeroom class was engaged in science.
She observed that Jon was very interested and often would join in the discussion. So, we decided that Jon would go to his homeroom class the last hour of the day for science. Jon was sitting at the table while we discussed this, and he couldn’t contain his excitement. His smile was as big as a kid receiving his favorite toy at Christmas. As for me, the tears of frustration turned to tears of joy. He was progressing.
Middle school years
The next year, Jon moved from elementary school to middle school, and as fate would have it, so would Joey. He would be Jon’s advocate for the next three years, and for Jon’s sixth grade IEP, his class split would be 60/40. Sixty percent of his classes were regular classes with his classmates. Jon would still attend special education classes for reading, writing and math. He really began to find his stride in middle school, but looming in the distance was high school. After Jon finished his eighth-grade year, Joey moved to the other side of the state. My last conversation with Joey, I could tell he was drained. He shared with me that not every student is like Jon, who wants to succeed. And not all parents were like my wife and me, who want our child to succeed.
A lot of his students in his middle school classes lacked support from home, and he felt as though he was swimming upstream constantly. Joey is now a real estate agent in Montana.
Along came Vicie DeLisle
A new experience and a new advocate would await Jon as he entered Delta High School. High school can be overwhelming, particularly for freshmen. Students have to be their own advocates. It’s on their shoulders to keep up with their individual classes. When I looked at Jon’s classes his freshman year and saw that we would have a study skills class, I was pretty pleased. What I didn’t know is another person would not only join our team but would, as Joey did, go above and beyond. Enter Vicie DeLisle into the equation and success was eminent. Vicie would spend the next four years being the most important person in Jon’s life at Delta High School. She helped him track down every missing assignment, break down every lesson that proved difficult for him and made him advocate for himself. I’m sure she did her own advocating for him when we weren’t looking.
His junior year during parent-teacher conferences, she looked at me with utmost sincerity and said, “Your son is the best student in this high school.” I’m sure there were better students, but that statement allowed me to relax about Jon and his education for the first time. It validated what I knew. He had overcome the odds and obstacles.
Accomplishing the goal
Jon graduated in 2017 with the same kids he entered kindergarten. He would finish with over a 3.0 GPA, and over 90 percent of his classes his junior and senior year were regular classes with his peers. Jon wasn’t valedictorian, or among the top students in his class, but he walked across the stage, accomplishing that first goal laid out for him his kindergarten year, which had seemed more like a pipe dream at the time. Joey and Vicie are just two of the many that were a part of the team that helped accomplish our goal. Now Jon is 21, employed and a productive citizen.
Dennis Anderson is group publisher for Wick Communications, Alaska and Colorado. He can be reached by email at dennisa@montrosepress.