In KERA’s Class of ’17 series we’ve been featuring students as they begin their journey through high school. For Chance Hawkins, that trip has been bumpy. Chance, who has a form of muscular dystrophy, started the year at Cassata, a small, private Catholic high school in Fort Worth. But he didn’t stay long. He has since transferred to a big public school, Dunbar High. His story shows the challenges schools face in adapting to a student’s special needs.
Chance Hawkins drives his motorized wheelchair down a long hallway at Dunbar and into an elevator. Campus monitor Gloria Harris is there to help. She presses the buttons and makes sure he gets in and out.
“I have his schedule and everywhere it is that he go,” Harris says. “And I go upstairs and I meet him downstairs. Always.”
Federal law requires that public schools give students like Chance special help for free if they need it, says Gene Lenz, who’s the director of federal and state education policy at the Texas Education Agency in Austin.
“You try to build a program taking into account the nature and severity of the disability, and you try to accommodate, at least initially,” Lenz says. “Or you modify certain aspects of the educational environment or the classroom, the curriculum, whatever it takes it takes in order for that child to receive benefits based on their individual needs.”
Public schools are required to set up committees made up of parents, teachers and other educators for students with disabilities. The committee comes up with an individualized education program, or IEP, that sets goals for special needs kids and determines what support the school should provide. A meeting to go over Chance’s plan for the year is scheduled to take place soon, according to his mom, Clarice Boyd.
Boyd said that pulling Chance out of Cassata after only a few weeks left her heartbroken. But she had to make the switch. She was taking him to and from school every day and staying with him in class, which meant she couldn’t really do anything else.
“I really loved the school. They were really compassionate, really nice about trying to get us all the help they can get,” Boyd said. “But in a way, I felt like I was kind of putting them in a strain because it was something new to them.”
Cassata employees got a ramp for Chance to make it easier for him to move around in his wheelchair and they were helping his mom find transportation for him. But in the end, she felt he was better off in a public school, where the support services already exist.
Nancy Martin, Cassata’s principal, says she realizes it was a hardship for Chance’s mom.
“We understand. We were really saddened though because we really thought we could help him a lot with his needs,” Martin said. “We’re not giving up. We’re hoping that he still returns to us.”
And that may be a possibility if Chance ends up getting an aide, and his mom decides to enroll him in Cassata again. The aide could go with him.
Meanwhile at Dunbar, it’s lunchtime, and kids are swarming the cafeteria. The school has about 800 students – four times as many as Cassata. Chance notices the difference.
“It’s alright you know,” he says. “It’s busy. You can call it a busy school.”
It’s also tough to make friends. Chance says he likes the school because he has a sister and brother there as well as a couple of cousins. But in the cafeteria, it can be intimidating finding a place to sit.
“I don’t really have a seat that I go to,” Chance says. “I just roam a little bit.”
Just then, Chance spots his sister and his face lights up. For today, at least, he’ll sit with her and her friends.