Fort Mill center helps students with disabilities

dworthington@heraldonline.comDecember 25, 2013 

When Phillip got ready for school this fall he made sure he had two No. 2 pencils, a notebook and a case for his pencils “so they can’t be broken and to keep them sharp.”

He is the kind of student most teachers like. His personality is infectious; when he smiles or laughs, everyone smiles or laughs. His face shows a constant series of emotions. When he rolls his eyes in a devilish way, you wonder what he is thinking.

He has the optimism teachers want in all their students. “I want to do the best I can,” he said. “Practice makes perfect and practice is everything.”

Introduced to his teacher, Paulette King, Phillip made a request King has seldom heard during her 35 years in the classroom. “Make sure you give me homework,” he told King.

Phillip is not your average student. He is confined to a wheelchair because of spina bifida, but he does not use that as an excuse. Given the choice of being pushed or rolling the wheels himself, Phillip opts for the latter.

But most of all what makes Phillip exceptional is – at 57 – Phillip is going to school for the first time. He is learning to read, to write, to do math – and to do homework.

Phillip would not be in school without the initiative and faith of people such as Frieda Price and Kenneth N’Gai Gaither.

Price is the executive director of the Adult Enrichment Centers of York County. Phillip comes to the Fort Mill center weekdays, where he eats lunch, plays games and socializes. Price wondered if Phillip and others could do more.

“Their box is so little,” Price said of those with intellectual or developmental disabilities who come to the centers in Rock Hill, Fort Mill and York. “Their lives are expanded by television, but television is not a participation world. Our agency is about enriching lives, not staying with the status quo.”

A chance meeting with Gaither, director of Tri-District Adult Education, turned into an opportunity. The center serves about 400 people a year seeking their GEDs, high school diplomas or WorkKeys certificates required by many employers.

Gaither wondered: What could his teachers do for students who lacked basic reading and math skills? What could his teachers do for those with some skills, but not enough proficiency to pass the WorkKeys exams or other employment tests? How much could they improve their new students lives?

Just two months into the program Gaither is already convinced, “we can do more.” His teachers are giving the students from the enrichment centers better academic skills, more self reliance, and more confidence. The approach is helping these adults become more independent, he said.

“That’s why I get excited. That’s what drives our staff, and our staff has embraced this,” he said.

Just the fact the Fort Mill enrichment center was willing to consider such a program helped it earn best-in-the-country honors from the National Association of Day Service Centers. The association honored the center for its innovative programs, which also includes a wellness program for clients.

In writing the procedures and expectations for the education program, Price found only one other program in the country that was even remotely similar to what she and Gaither envisioned.

Agreeing on procedures and goals was important, Price and Gaither said. They didn’t want the people coming to the adult education classrooms to think this was a field trip or a new club.

“They are coming for an education,” Gaither said. “That’s what we are in business for.”

He also knew that he likely wouldn’t meet any of the goals the state set for adult education. But working with these students was not about making a check mark on a state form, he said.

Price also didn’t want to set up her clients to fail. She wanted them to succeed.

Gaither – and his staff – say working with these students “makes you stretch yourself.”

Susan Jackson has been teaching for more than 40 years, most of it in middle school. While many of her enrichment center students have “common sense, worldly sense,” they struggled with basic reading and math concepts.

“It takes repetition, patience and being more understanding,” she said. “You have to listen to them,”

Jackson demonstrated all those qualities with a recent session with Kristy, 26, Jamie, 41, and Cameron, 23.

She handed her students a pack of 10 cards with words on them. Some of the words were nouns, others were verbs and a few could be used at the beginning or end of a sentence. Jackson asked her students to arrange them into a sentence.

With laughter and encouragement, the students came up with sentences such as: The rat is fat. Sid is mad. Sid is fit.

Wilson took several cards and then showed her students the sentence: Sid had a fit.

“Do you know what a fit is?” she asked.

“It means he lost his temper as we used to say in the South,” Jamie said.

In an adjacent classroom, teacher Phuong Kelley worked with Bobby, 63, and Markeith, 18.

Both were working on math skills required for the WorkKeys exams.

“I’m doing math I didn’t think I could do,” Bobby said, as he slowly turned fractions into decimals and then into percentages by using a calculator.

Markeith said, “I’m learning things I didn’t even know about.”

Even though they have been students for only two months, the enrichment students are setting high goals.

Bobby and Markeith hope to earn WorkKeys certificates.

Jake, 24, wants to become a teacher. Kara, 20, wants to work with animals.

Ricky, 58, said his return to school – he left in high school – helps motivate his 16- and 14-year-old children who are in high school.

As for Phillip, he says he had no goals other than to be the best he can be and keeping his promises.

But his teachers have higher aspirations. They want Phillip to become an author. They are helping him write his life story.

“It’s been good so far,” Phillip said of their collaboration. They have written about three or four pages on the computer, he said.

They also want to improve his reading skills. Currently, Phillip’s meals are wrapped in cellophane so he can see what he is putting into the microwave. He can’t read the labels on the food.

They also want to improve his math skills so he can master one of his own passions, coffee. He loves to drink coffee, but doesn’t know the right mixture of coffee and water. A home health aide makes his coffee daily and leaves it in Phillip’s refrigerator. He warms the cold coffee in a microwave.

And the teachers and enrichment center staff want to broaden his outlook.

Phillip was born in Fort Mill and “has never done anything, never been anywhere. He is afraid to try things,” said Fort Mill center director Samantha Kreigshauser. Phillip’s mother, Mildred, cared for him from birth until she died about four years ago.

A friend has power of attorney for Phillip. Shortly after his mother’s death, he came to the center.

“We’ve become his family,” Kreigshauser said.

Like all good families, Kreigshauser wants more for Phillip.

“We want to give him the world,” she said.

And the first step is going to school.

“I’m a kid with a new toy,” boasts Phillip.

A smiling, happy kid, says Kreigshauser.

“Seeing his face when he gets off the bus from school, it’s worth everything,” she said.

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066

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