Special needs scholarships

Victor Joecks

Please meet Lucas Estrada. Lucas is an elementary student in Florida who has autism. A voucher through Florida's McKay scholarship program allowed him to attend a private school, where "Lucas thrives in academic, art, and physical education programs designed to meet his needs, and has made many friends." The scholarship also saved his life. Yes, you read that right—it saved his life.

This is worth mentioning because Sen. Cegavske has introduced a bill that would establish a special needs scholarship program here in Nevada.

Enjoy Lucas' heart-warming story and ask yourself what's stopping this from happening in Nevada.

As a special education teacher in a Miami public school, Lynette Estrada always felt that she was on top of her two children's academic and emotional progress. Lynette noticed that her son Lucas had autistic tendencies at a young age, prompting her to enroll Lucas at the school where she loved to work.

"I consider my school one of the best in servicing special education. Where else would I trust my son's education?" Lynette said.

Although Lucas could already read when he entered kindergarten, he encountered problems in the classroom. Lucas was bullied by his peers and had trouble with basic exercises like writing and speaking clearly. The school's principal placed Lucas in a self-contained classroom, but even there he was placed under restrictions that further inhibited his progress. For example, Lucas was not allowed to write with a pen or marker, despite accommodations on his Individualized Education Program. Although a simple task for other children, Lucas's weak hand grip required these tools to write successfully. Finally, Lucas's occupational therapist told Lynette that he had sensory processing difficulties that could not be addressed at that school. By second grade, Lucas's instructors recommended that he be placed in the school's emotionally handicapped classroom or find a new school. Lynette felt that the emotionally handicapped classroom was not the right place for her son, so she toured the schools recommended by her district—and was appalled by what she saw.

"The different levels of autism were all placed in one room due to funding," Lynette recalled. "I observed one child banging his head against a wall, one little girl with self-mutilation marks on her arm, and one boy removing his clothing and trying to bite the teacher because she was trying to stop him. The higher-functioning children were left alone. This was not the setting for my son."

When Lynette worked with her son after school, he would read at higher levels and complete his work. Lynette was encouraged by Lucas's progress at home and strongly felt that a classroom aide would give him the attention he needed to succeed.

"My son was capable of completing the work, just not in school. I knew what he truly needed was a classroom aide."

But Lynette's attempts to secure an aide for Lucas were unsuccessful. After Lucas's doctor told Lynette her son was capable of succeeding if placed in the right educational environment, Lynette decided to withdraw Lucas from his public school and apply for the McKay scholarship.

"It was then and there I made the decision to remove my son from my school-the school I loved," Lynette said. "Even though I regard my coworkers with utmost respect and admiration I knew my school was not the best place for my son."

Lucas now attends a private school for students with disabilities through the McKay scholarship program. Here Lucas thrives in academic, art, and physical education programs designed to meet his needs, and has made many friends—all accomplishments Lynette says are a "victory" for her son.

"At this school he is now reaching his full academic and emotional potential. He gets the extra individual help he needs and is able to flourish," Lynette said.

The attention Lucas receives at his new school didn't just save his ability to learn—it also saved his life. Lynette was told in kindergarten that Lucas had an overactive bladder, which explained his insatiable thirst and frequent trips to the restroom. But his new teachers did not buy the doctor's explanation. Lucas's teachers continued to encourage Lynette to question Lucas's physician. Their dedication saved Lucas's life—a tumor was found on his pituitary gland. Lucas was diagnosed with cancer.

"Lucas missed a lot of school but was able to continue his education even though he was under chemotherapy and radiation treatments," Lynette recalled. "The doctors felt confident that he could continue because the school he attended was so attentive to his needs. It was with the help of Lucas's teachers that my son is alive."

Lynette calls the McKay scholarship a "blessing" for her son and for the thousands of other children with special needs in Florida who benefit from the program. She still works as a special education teacher in the public schools, but feels that sometimes a private school may be the best placement for a child with disabilities.

"As a society we need to stop trying to make every child fit in a circular peg when in fact they are square ones. We need to embrace our children's differences and guide them so they can succeed."

Lynette cites "autistic heroes" like Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol, Isaac Newton, and Hans Christian Anderson as inspirations for Lucas's future.

"I am at ease knowing my son has hope for the future. He will not drop out at 16. He will graduate with a real diploma. He will continue to reach his full potential!"