Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Student Tutors

Student tutors at Fulton High School embrace special needs schoolmates
Jessie Pounds Tuesday, March 31, 2009

When Corey Wyatt entered Fulton High School, his parents watched with bated breath.
They'd already held their son in middle school an extra year for fear that the transition to a bigger school with bigger kids might overwhelm him. Wyatt, a pink-cheeked 16-year-old, has Down syndrome, doesn't talk save a few words when pressed, and is shorter than most of his schoolmates.
At best, they hoped their son would be content at his new school. At worst, they feared he might lose ground.
What they did not anticipate was joy.
"You can barely stop the car in time for him to jump out and go to school," Tony Wyatt said, explaining that his son now has a more active social life than he did back when he was in high school. "He's basically got rock star status over at Fulton."
At the root of Wyatt's transformation is a group of Fulton students known as peer tutors.
They are, on one level, just students who serve as aides in Comprehensive Development Classes.
At Fulton though, the role of peer tutor has taken on a certain level of prestige and the peer tutors have established a tradition of also befriending the special-needs students and hanging out with them outside of school.
According to Emily McSpadden, Wyatt's CDC-Activity class teacher, this leads to a welcoming school culture. When Wyatt walks through the halls, students from every grade level call out his name or wave hello.
"(The peer tutors) accept my kids and their acceptance spreads to the school," McSpadden said. "Because they love him and take him for who he is, so does everybody else."
On a recent Friday, McSpadden organized a lunch-making party of sorts for her students. The five peer tutors paired with students to take on different tasks: making grilled cheese sandwiches, stirring tomato soup and baking cupcakes.
Sarah Wheeler, a senior, led Wyatt in setting the table for the class.
She is one of the students who likes to take Wyatt out for activities, like bowling or a Valentine's Day dinner. Though Wheeler, who wants to become a special education teacher, could likely have accomplished the task in a few minutes, she went step by step with Wyatt, requesting that he place a plate here or put down a napkin there.
For all the things Wheeler tries to teach the students in the class, she's learned a lot from them, too. In particular, the importance of individuality.
As a freshman, she felt compelled to hide aspects of herself, like being religious, because she was concerned about what other people might think. As she began to get to know the special needs students, she saw that all of them seemed to express their personalities and interests without concern about what others might think.
So Wheeler decided she would try being herself, too.
"Now, that's who I am, because if they don't see me, they just see the person trying to please everyone," she said.
In Wyatt's case, one major area of interest is sports. Both his parents went to Fulton High School, but only attended games once in a blue moon since then. Now, they bring their son to almost every game, because the peer tutors and their friends look for Wyatt and call him over to hang out with them.
During football season he joined the "rowdies," a group that paint their bare torsos to spell out phrases like "Go Falcons!" Wyatt is always the exclamation point.
Even more than football, he loves basketball. Though he has a hard time spitting out the word, to signal his excitement about an upcoming game, he mimics shooting a basket. Wyatt often plays in the gym with the two peer tutors on the school basketball team, juniors Xavier "Buddy" Bridges and Antonio Barfield.
Wyatt and his parents spent much of their spring break attending the state high school basketball tournament in Murfreesboro.
When Fulton won the game, the high schoolers went wild, Wyatt with them.
Together, he and his friends started jumping up and down, hi-fiving and hugging. Even Bridges and Barfield began pushing their way up toward Wyatt to share the moment with him.
Across the arena, Tony and Renee Wyatt sat and watched the whole celebration unfold, tears running down their faces that had nothing to do with the game.


Linda said...

Beautiful! That's it. Just beautiful.

Tausha said...

Thank you for posting that. What an amazing story. Great read!!!