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October 12, 2002

Constant search for keys to communication

From: Daytona Beach News-Journal, FL
Oct. 12, 2002


A small box sits on teacher Kelly Larkins' classroom shelf. It's worn, and has no top.

Inside are a dozen objects. All seem like things that might be headed for the trash: part of a plastic spoon; a frayed strip of green fabric; a piece of paper tube; a rubber band.

But these objects aren't trash. They've acquired a value far beyond intrinsic. They're keys to the closed doors of one child's isolated world.

Teachers search constantly for communication keys. They tap a vast 21st Century array of tools, and seek the best methods and latest techniques to convey concepts and ideas to students.

It's different for Larkins. She created her own simple tools.

Larkins works at Boston Avenue School where her students include 10-year-old Danny, a blind, nonverbal child with a toddler's mind.

Danny can be violent. When he's startled, or doesn't understand what's happening, he lashes out, scratches, pushes, pinches. No one knows what he's thinking, and the dark-haired Danny can't tell them.

The box of objects can change such unhappy scenarios.

When it's time to eat, Larkins puts the spoon in Danny's hand and runs his fingers over it. When he grasps the idea, he calmly heads to the cafeteria.

Before horticulture class, Larkins puts the fabric in Danny's hand. The rubber band means music, and dancing. The tube means bathroom.

Communication is tightly focused for teachers at Boston Avenue, a Volusia County public school for special needs students. Some children are autistic. Some have Down Syndrome. Some are deaf, or blind, or both. Many cannot speak. Seizures and medical emergencies are school day routines.

None of which matters when it comes to the question of education in Volusia County.

"These children are entitled to an education, like any other child in this county," said Juanita McNeil, principal here since 1984. "Our mission is to educate them to the extent they are capable."

It's an expensive mission, but there's little debate because it's the right thing to do.

Staff to student ratio at this quaint, 1926 school is about 1:1. In mid-September, there were 85 teachers and staff serving 83 students. School figures show the annual average education cost for a mainstream student is about $4,100. It can cost six times that much to educate severely disabled students.

Education doesn't necessarily mean reading, writing and arithmetic. It may mean making a bed, buttoning a shirt, stacking plates, or brushing teeth.

Emphasis is on basic life skills, said McNeil. "We have kids who cannot feed themselves, and we teach them how. We've got kids in diapers. We change diapers . . ."

Mixing teaching with therapy, diapers, seizures and violent behavior isn't a skill taught in universities, McNeil said. "Most college professors haven't seen this type of child."

Some students learn skills that lead to simple jobs, but most cannot aspire to such great accomplishments.

"Many of our kids can't even communicate. They can't tell us what they feel, what they think or need," McNeil said. "So we try to teach basic sign language: I am hungry. I want to drink. I'm sick.

"We're not talking complete sentences. We're talking basic communication. We teach them to point. Or just look this way or that so we know what they want."

Successful communication at this school is measured in many ways, mostly small.

"You could leave here every day for six months, or even a year, and not see progress with a child," said McNeil. "Or you may see a smile. You may see food go to their mouth. You may one day hear a word."

A word. A single, joyful word. At Boston Avenue, a single word can sometimes be a communications breakthrough.

Williamson is an editor at the News-Journal's West Volusia office and can be contacted by e-mail at

An award winner for his previous commentaries, Williamson launches a new column with today's piece. We hope you like it. Look for Williamson's commentaries each weekend at News-Journal Online.

© 2002 News-Journal Corporation, (SM)