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.
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."
Limited resources explain in large part the low number of even mainstream Christian schools offering separate special-education programs. AACS did not have current statistics on special-education programs among its members, but staff member Randy Scallion said schools in the group's membership are small and specialized: "Special-education programs are not a common thing."
Meanwhile, only 205, or about 5 percent, of ACSI's 4,000 domestic schools offer them, according to the group's membership enrollment data. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that about 12 percent of children enrolled in K-12 public schools received some type of federally supported special-needs education during the 2001-02 school year, the most recent year tabulated.
The paucity of special-needs programs in Christian education troubles McCormick, in part because he feels it reflects poorly on the church's view of those in the church whom the Apostle Paul called "the part that lacked." The reference is to 1 Corinthians 12: 22-25, the biblical passage in which Paul compares the body of Christ to the human body: "The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another."
Jim Johnson, an education professor at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, said complexity underlies the scarcity of Christian special-needs education. Accommodating the individual educational needs of the disabled is a "challenge for our churches and private organizations, many of whom can barely put together a basic structure for a general population," said Johnson, who specializes in education issues affecting the disabled. "When you add the complexity of what is required for children with special needs, you're adding a whole new level of infrastructure and support that goes beyond their resources."
Those issues led to the founding of Masters Academy (right). Elderine Wyrick, 57, a former Christian-school vice principal, launched Masters in her living room in 1988 after finding that neither public nor parochial schools could help her two learning-disabled sons achieve their potential.
Now located in Bread of Life Church in Duncanville, Texas, the school each year serves 38 to 40 kids of average intelligence or higher who have learning disabilities that cause them to struggle in school. Many are dyslexic or have attention-deficit conditions. Others have mild Aspberger's, a functional form of autism.
Common threads among students, Wyrick said, are social awkwardness, a resistance to change, and the need for more time to master material. "Our biggest hurdle is to help them understand that they really are intelligent and that they really do have a future. Many of them don't know because everyone has told them otherwise," said Wyrick, adding that students often come to Masters with bad school experiences.
Justin Walters, 19, is a senior at Masters. By the time he was a toddler, his parents, Lee and Leah Walters, knew he wasn't developing normally: He wasn't showing normal language progress and was strangely fascinated with things like air conditioner fans and car washes. At age 3, Justin received an Aspberger's diagnosis. After successful stints in a clinical language-intervention program and a secular special-needs prep school, Justin entered Masters in high school.
"It was perfect for him," his mother said. "It's very individualized, consistent, and nurturing." Walters appreciates Masters' biblical instruction and the emphasis on character and discipline. Justin "has just blossomed there," she said. Last year, he earned straight A's, zero detentions, and designation as "Mr. Masters Academy."
Justin works part-time at his dad's office, and his parents now entertain hope that he might someday live independently. Socially, things are still difficult for him, but he's working on it. "Justin has a couple of friends, but prefers the company of adults," Mrs. Walters said. "Now he's wanting to meet more girls."
Gateway School and Learning Center in Anchorage, Alaska, serves dyslexic children of normal intelligence but who struggle in traditional academic settings because of difficulties with language-based skills. Dyslexia, a brain processing disorder, hampers kids in learning to read, write, and spell. But the condition wasn't understood in the 1970s when Marilyn Anderson taught in Christian schools. Then, many teachers thought dyslexic kids had poor study habits or were just plain lazy. In 1983, Anderson started Gateway in her basement with seven students ("Turned around," Sept. 21, 2002). From the beginning, she tailored a rigorous curriculum but trained teachers to "teach to the individual, not the curriculum."
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