Thursday, November 11, 2010

Homecoming

Tonight Cara Stieglitz was named Homecoming Queen at Fletcher High School. High Schools all over the country are naming Homecoming Queens this time of year but what makes this story so very special is that Cara is a young lady with Downs Syndrome. Twelve years ago Cara's mom, Melanie, sat with Kerry Rogers and me and suggested that she wanted Cara to be included in our Kindergarten class full time. Although inclusion was the new buzz word, it was not really being done in Duval County at the time - at least not with students who had the significant challenges that Cara had. As we sat there, Melanie honestly explained Cara's abilities - and her challenges - and laid out her plan. I guess Kerry and I could have said no but I think we all knew that the legal system was behind Melanie if it ever came to that - not that she ever pushed or demanded. She was the perfect blend of "let's give it a try" and "I'll be there to support you every step of the way" - and she was. Kerry and I never hesitated. I think we knew even then that it was the right thing to do. Every time we stumbled - and we did - we simply went back to the drawing board to figure out how we could rearrange things so they would work.

Kindergarten is a good time for inclusion. Children at that age are very accepting of differences. It was easy to get children to partner with Cara. Most of them enjoyed being selected to be her helper. That's not to say everything went smoothly, but when we did have bumps in the road, Melanie made it easy to call her and sit down and work through solutions. By the end of the year, Kerry and I were very pleased with the outcomes. Although Cara had not mastered all of the kindergarten academic skills, she had made good, consistent progress and she had certainly matured socially. She had learned to navigate the kindergarten classroom and playground. She had friends. And the other children in that class had learned from Cara. In fact they had learned the most. They had learned how to be helpful without doing it for her. They had learned empathy.

I kept up with Cara on and off as she went through school. I would run into Melanie every now and then after I left Alimacani for Chets Creek. I remember she called me once and told me that Cara had been invited to her first sleepover. I think we both cried. As the years went by, every year had its challenges, but Melanie stood strong as Cara's advocate. She was never unreasonable, but she would not be pushed around either. She stood firm when she needed to and compromised when she needed to. She actively sought out the best teachers and the best programs for Cara and left no stone unturned to help her along the way. When I got Melanie's e-mail that Cara had been nominated by her bowling coach to serve on this year's Homecoming Court, I cried. I couldn't have been prouder.

My hat is also off to the students at Fletcher. Many of them have known Cara since that first year at Alimacani. They have watched her grow and mature. I am sure they have seen her fall too, but they have also seen her pick herself up and with more determination than ever, take the next step. Many of them must have been willing to forgo a vote for a friend in order to make this dream possible for Cara. That shows a group of students who had the maturity to understand the bigger picture. The smile on Cara's face tonight says it all, but this is not only a victory for one little girl, it is a victory of an entire community. The Stieglitz family serves as an example of what can be accomplished when families and educators work together - when they can put aside their own personal needs and wants and do what is best for a child! Congratulations Queen Cara! May your reign be an inspiration to us all!

9 comments:

Carrie with Children said...

Such a fantastic story! I'm a Jacksonville mom and my 4mo old daughter, Molly, has Down Syndrome. Cara is an inspiration and a fantastic role model. I hope to meet her one day!

Thanks for sharing your story. I've posted a story too on my site www.CarrieWithChildren.com

Maria Mallon & Cheryl Dillard said...

dayle,
What a beautiful story and a beautiful girl. The students of Fletcher know a gem when they see one! This is just the beginning for the reigning Queen of Fletcher! Bravo!!

Tina said...

Beautifully written. I am proud to say I work at Fletcher High and we truly do have an awesome study body. I believe Cara's impact on the world is just beginning.

Suzanne said...

I am honored to say that my son is a student at Fletcher High. Recently, I took part in their Challenge Day, a day about 'getting real' and teaching tolerance and understanding. I saw hundreds of students as they applauded and embraced each other's differences. I left in awe. They are a truly remarkable community of young learners and educators. Congratulations to Cara and to her parents!

Laura Watts said...

Hi Dayle! It has been a while since we have talked - I guess last time was when my daughter, Meaghan West, taught with you at Chet's! Melanie sent me the link to your blog about Cara - what a great, honest view of how so many of us educators felt back then. I remember meeting with you several times regarding Cara and I always felt you had the best attitude and the most amazing desire to make inclusion work. I was not surprised when you became Teacher of the Year! Thank you for being such a ground-breaker for Cara and so many others!
Laura Watts, M.Ed.
Program Director
Down Syndrome Center at Hope Haven

Todd said...

Thanks for your marvelous blog and descriptions of inclusion from an educator's perspective. I heard you speak as FL's teacher of the year when my son, who happens to have Down syndrome, was just three. You've helped shape choices we've made with Josiah (who is now in a 2nd grade inclusion classroom) as have Cara and her parents. Our family, which includes two teens who are students at Fletcher and are also in the same youth group as Cara, has had a blast rejoicing with Cara too!

Bethene (& Todd) Middleton

Ingrid Wilson said...

Mrs. Timmons,
I just had to say a thank you to YOU. You shared your part of Cara's story so beautifully, and as the mom of an included first grader (who enjoyed TWO wonderful years in included Kindergarten classrooms) I know what an impact you must have had on the Stieglitz family as we have been blessed by our daughters loving teachers.

Your crown surely shines brightly, too.

Ingrid Wilson (mom of Mylie & her brothers)

Dave, Elizabeth, Charlie and Kate said...

I am not even sure where to begin. As the sister of a fabulous down syndrome brother, a mother of a special needs daughter and as an inclusion teacher, my heart was so touched when I heard that Cara was named homecoming queen. I love how you shared the teacher/parent perspective to Cara's journey through school. Thank you for reaching a greater audience with this awesome story!

karen prewitt said...

As the parent of a 3-year-old, the future is wide open in front of us. Stories like this-not only the story about Cara winning Homecoming Queen-but also the story of educators who care-gives us such hope for what's ahead. I'm certain Cara's parents were involved from the get-go, and that is fully our intention as well. We totally agree with the thinking that the other kid's in Caleb's class with gain as much from their interaction with him as he will from them.
What a wonderful influence Cara, her parents and you have been on this community. Thank You for your dedication and caring.
Sincerely,
Karen and David Prewitt