Palm Valley School was introduced to me as a potential solution to a very big problem. It was 2013, and my son was months into 6th grade at the public Middle School. It’s common knowledge that “the Middle School years are the toughest,” but for my son, Angus, that was a huge understatement. You see, at 2 ½ it was brought to my attention by a close family friend that my son exhibited traits of a child on the Autism spectrum. And as it turned out, my friend was right. So, when you are “different,” the bullying is fierce. I didn’t even know how bad it really was until years later, because Angus did not communicate to me his daily struggles. What I did know, however, was that every Sunday morning he dreaded school on Monday. It was heartbreaking, to say the least.
On top of the bullying, which was indeed a good enough reason in and of itself to seek out another school for Angus, it was apparent that the loud, chaotic environment both inside and outside of the classroom was not working. My bright and academically successful boy was becoming accustomed to D’s and F’s on his report card. The crowded classrooms and overwhelmed teachers caused him to simply disappear and fall through the cracks. I was advocating, and he was getting his services, and that is what I thought was most important, and what would keep him moving forward successfully. But I was watching him shrink right before my eyes.
I toured the Palm Valley campus desperate to find a place where Angus would be safe and maybe even comfortable, and ultimately happy. Just driving through the gates and seeing the campus was phenomenal. I knew it was a place where he could breathe, relax, and have space (literally and figuratively) just to be himself. The students were so polite and helpful. It was really impressive. I remember thinking how civilized it was on campus and I could clearly imagine Angus being a student there. I will never forget these words from the Head of the Middle School at that time, “It is amazing what happens to a person when you remove the negativity from their environment.”
On the day he was to shadow, we pulled into the parking lot, and Angus was too nervous to get out of the car. I was so scared that I wasn’t going to be able to get him inside and I didn’t... it was the kind and encouraging words of a PVS student that gave my son the courage to walk into the building. It was an amazing moment that still brings tears to my eyes. This boy told Angus that he should really go inside, because “the kids are really nice here.” And just like that, he did. I saw my son stand a little bit taller that day. That young man will hold a special place in my heart forever.
I came back at the end of the day to hear Angus tell me how much he liked the school, and it was true that the kids were really nice to him. He said, “I even kicked the ball to the wrong kid in soccer, and nobody screamed at me for it.” And he told me not long ago, that the one thing that got him through the remainder of that 6th grade year was knowing that he could go to Palm Valley School the next year.
So, although the decision essentially had been made to move Angus from a public to a private school, this did not come without some concerns and trepidation. I did not know if leaving the school district was the right thing to do for him. Since Kindergarten, I had worked on constructing his “Plan.” I had advocated making sure all the services he could get were in place, and I thought that it would be quite possible that the small class sizes and individual attention he would get at PVS would make up for it. It did, and, it turned out that PVS also provides “Differently-Abled” kids individualized learning plans, that are comparable to the District’s IEPs. Angus’ teachers and administrators sat down with me, and we constructed an appropriate plan specific to Angus’ needs. Fortunately, Angus is very high functioning, and this learning environment is so optimal for him, that I do not believe he has to rely on this plan very often.
It has been a slow and steady process over these past 4+ years to build Angus back up again, and it has been accomplished by caring and compassionate teachers, combined with the positive words and consistent support of his peers. It’s really rare, I think, to encounter so many young men and women who actually acknowledge and appreciate the gifts of their peers. Even if you are not “best friends” or “part of the group,” these students have been taught by the modeling of their educators to look for the good in a person and to appreciate it. This has absolutely changed the trajectory of my son’s life. I could say it has restored his self-confidence, but I honestly think that it has created it all together. He knows that in his unique and special way, he is a part of the fabric of this tight-knit community. The benefits of inclusion are truly remarkable, especially for those who spend much of their life feeling isolated and out of place.
Academically, Angus has soared as a PVS student. I smile to think what an academic he has become. The demands of the curriculum have resulted in him building a tremendous work ethic. The structured nature of the classroom environment and the philosophy applied by the teachers have helped him to grow as a communicator and abstract thinker. These were not inherent skills for my boy. As a result, he has placed very high standards for himself and works very hard to achieve his own personal goals. The success of his fellow classmates has inspired and motivated him to become a better student and a more well-adjusted person overall.
Through the course of his time at Palm Valley, Angus has uncovered his passion for film editing, and he has a clear vision of what he wants for his future. Although there haven’t been specific classes that fed directly into his interests, every year an opportunity has been created by a teacher or administrator that allowed Angus to work on his craft. On top of that, he is given the opportunity to present his work and reap the positive benefits of the compliments and admiration of his peers. The words of the Drama teacher always ring inside my head, “You have gifts, and you must share them with the world.” Angus was given that message his first week at the school. It is evident that all of the teachers at PVS really live into this belief. They make it their personal responsibility to uncover all of the potential that lies within each student so that they can really see and experience their own greatness.
I am ecstatic that Angus attends Palm Valley School and I am grateful for the financial assistance program that has made it possible for me to keep Angus at Palm Valley School. I would like to personally thank all of the teachers and administrators that have been and continue to be a positive force in my son’s life. It is because of them that Sunday mornings in the Le Brett-Gregg house aren’t bad at all anymore!
-Michele Le Brett & Angus Gregg
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