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Jack_1_credit to Erin Stork-JUMBO
West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Jun. 11, 2014 4 years ago

Siblings stick together at UCP charter school

by: Shari Roach

Holly_1_credit to Erin Stork

Michael and Dana Power have found comfort in sending their children Holly and Jack to UCP of Central Florida, a school where children with and without disabilities can learn side by side. Jack, 4, has special needs while his sister, Holly, 5, does not. She made the decision to attend school this year with her brother, instilling within them both a sense of understanding and comfort. 

Holly and Jack attend the West Orange campus in Winter Garden. UCP, United Cerebral Palsy, follows what it calls an “inclusion” model, where “inclusion is the norm not the exception.” Students of all abilities can achieve success and receive the full attention needed to progress in their education. Those with all types of special needs are welcomed by UCP, including cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, speech and developmental delays and vision and hearing impairments – along with students without disabilities. Because all students are accepted and treated equally at UCP, it teaches these children to accept one another and realize everyone is different and special in their own way.

Jack is involved with the National Institute of Health Rare and Undiagnosed Diseases Program. He has struggled with epilepsy since he was a baby, as well as other underlying medical issues that medications have yet to fully treat. The Winter Garden family needed a school that would better cater to their collective needs, and they found that at UCP. At first, it was difficult for Holly to adjust to the unfamiliar atmosphere, but she quickly grew to embrace it. She was receiving the attention that she couldn’t always get at home or in elementary school and realized that her family was not the only one dealing with disabilities. 

“She looks forward to helping the other kids, and, more than anything, the smaller class size and the smaller ratio has given her the special attention that, let’s face it, we tried to be fair at home but [Jack] requires a lot of attention, I mean, even as far as stopping what we’re doing to do medication 12 times a day,” Dana Power said. “It’s that extra attention that she’s not getting. And I feel like she really gets that at school, even if it’s being the helper.”

Jack was born a completely healthy baby with no signs of disability in the future. But at the age of 1, he stopped growing. The family soon discovered that his pancreas doesn’t function and can’t produce digestive enzymes, causing an inability to digest food or absorb the nutrients from it. 

This condition is “typically linked to larger things like cystic fibrosis,” Power said. “But we tested negative for everything and then he, at 18 months, started having seizures.”

After multiple seizures, Jack had an MRI and doctors found he had thinning white matter of his brain. Around this time last year, he had seven failed medications and the seizures persisted to the point of physically scarring his brain. Because they were being caused from points throughout his entire brain, he was not a candidate for surgery. The family endured much confusion and uncertainty from doctors and specialists but eventually found comfort in the option of Jack attending UCP, where teachers fully understand how to handle special circumstances and emergencies. 

“We ended up going for what they call an IEP, an individualized education plan,” Power said. “He uses big vocabulary and stuff and thinks he’s funny, so he didn’t belong in the full ESE {Exceptional Student Education} classroom. So we decided UCP was a good mix for him and would give him what he needed and be able to stay more individualized and be able to stay on pace with him.”

UCP has established a place where all children can receive specialized instruction based on their own abilities, instead of purely by age. Although the school follows the same curriculum for students with and without special needs, it offers a wide variety of learning techniques so each student can be successful. Holly and Jack don’t attend class together, but often see each other in the hallways and on the playground. At the West Orange campus, there are 16 “inclusion” students.

“We provide differentiated instruction, scaffolding, visuals, small groups and other strategies so all our students can benefit from teaching,” said Katherine Coulthart, senior director of marketing and communications at UCP.

 The Power family struggled with whether UCP would be the right choice for Holly, as well. She was beginning kindergarten at the time, and her mother worried about her vital need for socialization at that young age. The family decided to take Holly to both a public school orientation and one at UCP and then ultimately leave the decision up to her.

“She wanted to go to school with her brother,” Power said. “[She] has a caretaker mentality, and I think that it’s in her, and she wanted to be with him. And her experience at UCP has fostered that.”

Holly has come to really care about her classmates and strives to include anyone who might feel left out. Last Valentine’s Day, she showed her compassion by making a special valentine for a boy in her class who has a difficult time communicating and reading. Because she knew how much he enjoyed playing with the bell bracelet in music class, she made him one of his own complete with bead letters spelling out his name. Holly wanted to make him something he could really appreciate.

Power believes UCP is the perfect place for her family because the teachers understand their situation. The school has provided peace, allowing her to feel safe leaving her children in the hands of the teachers. Time and again the staff has taken care of them. When Jack had trouble eating for some time, his teacher decided to take him to the vending machine and let him pick out anything he wanted. He chose a bag of Cheetos and actually ate them, sending waves of excitement through the school and back to his mother, who cried when she heard.

“The best thing is, I’m not sitting in the parking lot stalking my children while they’re at school,” Power said. “I know that if he has a seizure during school or if he doesn’t eat or if he’s sad, he’s going to be OK. And if he’s not, then they’ll tell me right away.”

Jack had about a month of hospitalizations this past school year, and teachers were even happy to drop Holly off at a friend’s house after class when her parents were unable, proving their dedication to the students’ well-being both during and after school hours. 

Holly “needs a teacher that understands that she’s sad when Mommy goes away with her brother,” Power said. “And [Jack] needs that ‘Hey this kid hasn’t eaten in weeks, somebody buy this kid a bag of Cheetos.’ Little things like that are just unbelievable. I think that that’s the standard, I really do.”

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