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Education | Only a handful of Christian schools provide high-end help for disabled learners

Issue: "Stealth care," Sept. 16, 2006

Nine-year-old Colten Wolverton's passion is stockcar racing. But he also loves Winnie the Pooh and Franklin videos, as well as throwing books down stairs because he likes the thump-thump-thump sound they make on the way down. Colten finds that plastic bowls tossed on the floor also make a pleasing noise, bouncing and spinning as they do. And VCR buttons fascinate him: On, off, on, off, on, off-again and again, until mom or dad tells him that's enough.

Colten has autism, a debilitative form that is evidenced by obsessive-compulsive disorder and may render him unable to live an independent life. But that hasn't stopped his parents, Shane and Ann, from pursuing an education for Colten. At first, he attended a Greenville, S.C., public school. But after the Wolvertons became concerned about his safety, they enrolled Colten at Hidden Treasure Christian School (HTCS), a Taylors, S.C., institution serving special-needs kids.

As it turns out, such schools are rare, not only in America, but likely on the globe. WORLD canvassed the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), which represents more than 5,400 Christian schools in 105 countries; the American Association of Christian Schools (AACS) with more than 1,000 member institutions; and the National Institute for Learning Disabilities, a special-needs education program founded on a Christian worldview and in use in 400 schools around the world. In the end, we only found three Christian schools dedicated entirely to special-needs kids: Gateway School and Learning Center in Anchorage, Alaska; Master's Academy in Duncanville, Texas; and Hidden Treasure.

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Hidden Treasure arose from the literal ashes of individual tragedy. In May 1978, a fire broke out at the home of John Vaughn, the young pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Greenville. Vaughn's wife and 2-year-old daughter, Becky, were severely burned, leaving Becky with profound physical disabilities, including the loss of all 10 fingers.

Three years later, when the Vaughns began seeking a Christian education for their daughter, they found that area parochial schools could meet Becky's academic and spiritual needs, but not her physical ones. After consultation with medical, business, and education professionals, John Vaughn founded HTCS in 1981 with an enrollment of two: Becky and a mentally handicapped young lady of 13.

Today, HTCS serves a variety of special-needs kids including those with emotional disorders and physical disabilities like spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, and visual impairments, as well as those with learning disabilities, mental disabilities, and autism.

Colten Wolverton's autism has severely limited his academic prospects, his father said. But HTCS teachers are working with him on key life skills, such as dressing himself and communicating with others: "When Colten is sick or hurt, we can't tell what's wrong because he can't tell us," Shane Wolverton said. Colten is also learning to be subordinate to the activities of a group, "to meet expectations that are not defined by him."

HTCS students, meanwhile, are not defined by clinical categories or limited by textbook prognosis for specific disabilities. Instead, the school embraces each student as a special and complete creation with a divinely ordained purpose, Wolverton said: "What a normal school system tolerates, Hidden Treasure embraces. The school teaches them, to the extent they are able to grasp it, that they were fashioned by God lovingly and tenderly. That He does not view them as outside His plan to pursue a specific purpose that He has in store."

With only 60 students and a teacher-student ratio of 7-to-1, HTCS can be more nimble than special-ed programs embedded in larger schools, particularly public ones. The school is not bound by the bureaucracy found in some programs where even minor tweaks to a child's "Individual Educational Plan (IEP)" have to be voted on by a multidisciplinary committee.

"If a parent wants a change, they call me," said HTCS administrator John McCormick. "We sit down and discuss it and if it sounds like something we should try, we try it."

On the flip side, resources are slim. McCormick said the school's biggest challenge is to meet operating expenses each year. Divide actual expenses by the number of students and the cost per pupil is about $14,000. But HTCS parents pay, on average, $7,400 each year, while a director of development works all year to raise the additional $400,000 in necessary funds. "We work to keep tuition low enough so that we don't out-price a lot of our folks." Still, new parents come in each year and want to enroll their child, but can't afford it.

"It breaks my heart," McCormick said. "I'd really like to be able to say, 'Hey, don't worry about it.' But we're financially limited as to who we can assist."

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