By Christopher Smith
Mary Howard said she cried when she got back to her car after dropping off her son Daniel, a seventh-grader, at Christian Heritage School.
Not because she was sad she had to see him off to school, she said, but because he received several “high fives” from Lions football players in the hall.
“That would mean nothing to somebody else’s kid,” Howard said. But to see Daniel, who has Down syndrome, fitting in with students “means so much.”
“It’s hard to relay to them how much that means,” Howard added.
Daniel is one of the students who is part of the Pinnacle Academy program, a sort of school-within-a-school at Christian Heritage that offers learning support and special education support for students who need it.
The program, which began expanding this spring after an anonymous donation, offers online learning, internships and SAT prep for several students. For Daniel, it offers a chance to “integrate,” said program director Marget Sikes.
When the 14-year-old walks into a room full of new faces, he can be heard telling new friends it was “very nice to meet you” as he readies for another class at Christian Heritage. Several students and teachers say “Hey, Daniel” as he walks through the school. He smiles and waves confidently.
That’s something his mother said she was “giving up hope for.”
“Daniel is loving it there,” Mary Howard said. “I’ve been so moved by the reaction of other kids. He has so many friends. I ask him who his friends are but he doesn’t know many names. He just loves you. He’s not hung up on what your name is.
“I was concerned, of course. As a mother — any mother would be, but especially with special needs kids — you worry about your kid being accepted. If they fit in.”
Now she says she “never worries about his welfare, that he isn’t being cared for.”
“And that does my heart good everyday,” she added.
The program puts Daniel in classes with his peers where he learns about Bible history, music and more, Sikes said. She adds that her biggest “challenge” at Christian Heritage is to make sure no one “babies” Daniel.
“Teachers and students should treat him like a 14-year-old even though his mind is not at 14,” she said. “But what a wonderful challenge that is, instead of having to protect him and make sure he’s not bullied or hurt.”
Which is often the case at schools across the nation, Sikes said, recalling one middle-grade friend of Daniel who was “very surprised” to see everyone treating Daniel with dignity. The student had seen kids with similar disabilities mistreated at other schools, Sikes said.
“It was amazing for this student to see that that doesn’t have to be the norm,” she said. “Having kids different from us would benefit us as much as it does them. I fully believe this is more what the Kingdom of God will look like, more than the A-plus student.
“For a long time, Christian Heritage all looked the same. The new headmaster (Gerald Porter) is really embracing diversity. And one of the places where we’re already ahead of the curve is in this department.”
A department Mary Howard says she hopes grows.
“It’s helping Daniel so much,” she said. “It helps him be independent as much as he can be. I hope the program grows and many, many special needs children can benefit from it.”
That’s the plan, Sikes said.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” she said. “We have doubled our staff. We are serving about 95 students. And it’s learning support, not just special education support. So we have lots of diversity. We have 25 kids who just need an extra push, who come here for some extra attention. We’re very intent to make sure this program is valuable for everyone.”