At traditional schools, acting in a play or taking Taekwondo would be highly unlikely for special education students like Theresa Portwood.
But at the Christi Academy in Tamarac, Theresa was given all of these opportunities and more.
“Kids are able to get the attention they need here,” says Theresa, 20, a recent graduate and current employee of the Christi Academy. Theresa says that when she first came to the Christi Academy she was very shy “like always,” but that the school’s Taekwondo classes got her out of her shell and gave her confidence.
At her previous school, she says, “I didn’t have the opportunities or the people to encourage me to be more confident. Here, it’s like a second family.”
Nineteen-year-old Christi Academy senior Ashley Dzeda, who is labeled with autism, agrees.
“Some teachers say, ‘I don’t know how to help this child.’ But everyone has different learning disabilities. It can be math, science or reading, like mine is – I’m coming clean with that,” says Ashley. “But everyone has disabilities in this world, and it’s this school that makes things better. God uses this school to help people.”
At the Christi Academy, students with learning disabilities from first through the twelfth grade are taught in ways that suit their needs, in addition to being taught the Bible. For example, Ashley uses a Kurzweil Educational System program designed to “read” for the blind. The program sounds out words, defines words and provides synonyms so the 19-year-old can better grasp the content she’s reading.
Special needs students are allowed to stay in school until they are 22 years old, and Christi Academy students only graduate when they are able to pass the test for a GED. “Nothing is impossible,” says Ashley. “When the Lord wants you to graduate, you will graduate, and I’m praying for that day!”
Different teaching methods Christi Academy teachers generally don’t use books. Instead, they use tools like “BrainPOP” videos, which visually teach children math, English and other subjects. Colorful poker chips are used to demonstrate math problems to children who can’t visualize addition or subtraction easily on paper. Even sentence structure is demonstrated with poker chips.
There’s also a computer for every child at the school.
“When you have special needs kids like we have, the pencil is a burden for them. You’ll never know what they know if you ask them to write it down. Put them on a computer, and it just changes everything,” says Nancy Hellwege, director and founder of the Christi Academy.
At Christi Academy, students who are sometimes looked down upon or set apart in traditional schools are also given the ability to act in plays, do karate and manage the school’s snack shop. “When they come in here, the labels leave,” says Nancy, who believes her students are very bright, they just need to be taught in a different way. Her middle daughter, Christi, who the school is named after, was a “different learner” just like her students. Nancy, who is a specialist in special education, designed the school around The Different-Learner System of teaching, which recognizes that people learn only 10 percent of what they read, 20 percent of what they hear, 85 percent of what they experience and 95 percent of what they teach someone else.
In other words, your run of the mill reading, writing and arithmetic might not be the best way to teach each student. Nancy tries to get her students to experience what they learn with the techniques listed previously and then assists them as they teach one another.
“If you teach it, you know it better,” she says. “To teach someone else, you have to learn the language yourself.”
Different learners are sometimes described as “Einstein learners,” or children who don’t fit the standard mold. Albert Einstein himself rebelled against standardized education, because he felt it subdued creativity and the spirit of learning.
“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education,” he once said.
Different learners are usually very bright, sensitive but may have low self-esteem because of their lack of success in traditional forms of education. Different learners usually have good non-verbal skills, some visual and auditory perception problems, good deductive processing skills and some problems with generalizing. They are also somewhat disorganized.
Regardless of their challenges and setbacks, Nancy says different learners have a lot to offer society.
“The reason I opened Christi Academy is because I wanted the outside world to know how smart these kids are and what they had to offer,” she says. “They’re like the babies people want to abort because they’re special ed., when God has a plan for that baby.” But, she says many people in the school system look down upon different learners.
At a ribbon cutting ceremony at Christi Academy, Nancy says community leaders in Tamarac were surprised to see the students respectfully show them to their seats and then give a Taekwondo presentation.
“Even some of the Christian schools – their perceptions of these kids is so wrong. We’ve got to let people know what they have to offer,” she says. However, Christi Academy students know full well what their school has offered them. “This is a school that actually helps people with their needs,” Ashley says. “Most teachers nowadays say, ‘You’re retarded, because you can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ In this school, they give you patience, they give you time. It’s wonderful over here.” Theresa agrees.
“This school can make your child be the best they can be. ” she says. “If your child is shy, this school brings out their best