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Three Families Share Their Stories on World Down Syndrome Day

• ExcelinEd

Today, families across the world are highlighting the meaningful contributions people with Down Syndrome bring to their families and communities. World Down Syndrome Day, celebrated on March 21 each year, presents a unique opportunity to talk about equity in education for students with special needs.

Children with Down Syndrome, like all children, deserve access to a quality education that prepares them for lifelong success. Yet their parents struggle far too often to find an inclusive learning environment where their child can thrive.

The following stories are from three families who advocated for their children, often in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers to their education.

The Myers Family – Ohio

After years of trying different styles of learning, Tera Myers realized that one size just didn’t fit all and that each of her children learned differently. Samuel is the oldest of Tera and Lewis’ three children. The Myers knew that, despite the preconceived notions associated with Down Syndrome, Samuel was capable of learning and becoming a productive citizen just like his two sisters. Thanks to Tera and Lewis’ advocacy, all three of the Myers children have since graduated from high school and gone on to pursue jobs and/or higher education. Tera took a few minutes to answer our questions about their experience.

What challenges did you encounter while searching for a learning environment where Samuel would thrive?

The greatest challenge we faced was that our local public school didn’t have the same high expectations for Samuel’s education, or his life, that we did. We were told that because of Samuel’s disability, we shouldn’t expect much from him and that just occupying his time in school should be good enough. That wasn’t good enough for us. Samuel deserved a chance to reach his potential just like every other child his age.

We were not interested in his getting a certificate of attendance at the end of a 13-year education. We wanted him to learn and graduate with knowledge that he could use

How did you find a learning environment where your child could thrive?

We tried using an online charter school for Samuel, but the program was too advanced for him so it was difficult to keep up. In a moment of frustration, I picked up the phone and called School Choice Ohio, a Columbus-based group that had helped with charter school legislation. When I told them Samuel’s story and all that we had personally gone through, they asked me to come and testify on legislation for children with special needs. That day changed our lives.

It would be another four years before the legislation became law. When it did, the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program was established, allowing our son to go to a program tailored for him. In total, it was a ten-year effort for our family, and I often felt like I would never see a solution. However, our patience, teamwork and persistence paid off for our family–and thousands of other Ohio families.

How has your child’s education improved?

With all I had researched, collaborated on and learned over the years, I was able to help set up and direct the program at the private school Samuel attended.  We made sure it was a tailored education for all the students.

It was an amazing opportunity for Samuel to learn at his pace, in all areas of need and to be part of his community. Samuel took full opportunity of the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship. He participated in every aspect of learning and loved the years at his school.

Now that Samuel is a young man, he has gone on to share his story in our state capitol and in Washington, D.C. Samuel has confidence and is secure in the person he has become. He feels he has a life!

What advice would you give to a parent struggling to help their child access a quality education?

I would tell parents to “get in the game!” and do not give up. Education is a partnership, between parents, students and the education community. It will be intimidating and hard at times, but passion and pursuit can move an unmovable mountain.

If you do not like what is offered, offer up something better. If you see where things could improve, be a stakeholder and bring the solution to the table. Play to the end, do not give up, you will be so glad in the end.

The Ragland Family – Arizona

Veronica and Joseph Ragland are parents to two girls: Isa, 16, and Salima, 12. Both of the Ragland’s daughters have been to public and private schools throughout their education. Salima, who has Down Syndrome, is a precocious tween who loves the movie “Grease” and is an avid singer and dancer.

Salima is celebrating World Down Syndrome Day this year with her classmates, and Veronica took this opportunity to reflect on their educational journey.

What challenges did you encounter while searching for a learning environment where Salima would thrive?

When both girls were born, I stressed over where they would go to preschool and then elementary school. For Salima, I worried I wouldn’t find a place where she would be accepted and nurtured.

However, I soon learned that many of the choices that were available to typically developing kids weren’t available to Salima. I had several private school administrators turn us down for admission without even meeting Salima or evaluating her needs. We tried a top-rated public school but found that the district lacked support and options for inclusion.

Salima felt the stress, even though she couldn’t articulate it, so we kept looking and found a private school. The school’s leadership worked to make Salima feel included and empowered. The school was a great place for Salima for the next few years until turnovers happened in the school’s administration. Through this process, we learned that a school’s policy and culture toward students like Salima begins at the very top. Having school leadership on board for your child’s success is key.

How did you find a learning environment where your child could thrive?

We tried a different public school the following year but then needed a new option after our family moved. We found a small, private school that Salima is currently attending. The school focuses on all students, including those with special needs. Even though Salima is the first student with Down Syndrome to attend the school, we have found it to be a great fit.

How has your child’s education improved?

We have seen Salima blossom not only in her studies, but also socially. At school, she has a caring community that accepts her and is getting to know someone who is truly special.

What advice would you give to a parent struggling to help their child access a quality education?

It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and that is true for all parents.

When you can, lean on other parents for support. Fight for inclusion whenever possible. Inclusion is more than just the classroom. Make sure the world is safe for your child while they build their confidence.

People will connect with you as a result of the passion you have for your child’s success.

The Whitfield Family – Florida

Jason and Dena Whitfield moved to Florida when their oldest three children were still young. Dena, a former public school teacher, decided home school education was the right fit for their family.

In 2013, the Whitfields began the process of adding to their family through adoption. Just a few months later, they met their youngest daughter, Hope. Two years later, the Whitfields added to their family through adoption again. They welcomed their fifth child and first son, Parker, to the family. Both Hope and Parker have Down Syndrome. Dena recently shared her thoughts and observations with us.

What challenges did you encounter while searching for a learning environment where your child would thrive?

Having a child with Down Syndrome never really scared me. Growing up, I always enjoyed spending time with my aunt, who has Down Syndrome. Knowing and loving her prepared my heart to welcome Hope. When we decided to adopt, we told our caseworker that we were open to children with special needs. That sped up the process significantly, and in just a few short months we welcomed Hope to our family.

Two years later we received a call about a child with Down Syndrome and other significant medical needs who needed a loving home. This time I was worried that parenting two children with Down Syndrome would be more than I could handle. Thankfully, my husband had already told our caseworker yes, and Parker became ours that summer.

Even with my background in education, homeschooling five children seemed daunting. Homeschooling five children when two have significant learning needs was even more intimidating. It was a conversation I had with a neurologist that changed my mind. He told me that providing one-on-one learning would benefit Hope and Parker.

How did you find a learning environment where your child could thrive?

I called a preschool and asked if they would meet with us. I didn’t tell the director over the phone that Hope has Down Syndrome, because I didn’t want her to say no. Thankfully, she met with us and worked with us to accommodate Hope’s therapy sessions, which made the school a great environment to supplement her home education.

Hope made a lot of progress through the speech therapy provided by Florida’s Early Steps program. However, when she aged out of the program, we worried she would regress. Our insurance wouldn’t cover the costs for us to stay with Hope’s speech therapist. Hope is extremely shy, and moving to a new therapist would have halted her progress for weeks, maybe even months.

Thankfully we learned about the Gardiner Scholarship program and received a scholarship this school year. The scholarship reimburses our family for the costs of therapies and educational resources. Because of the scholarship, Hope was able to stay with her speech therapist. Hope is now able to communicate through signing and a few words.

How has your child’s education improved?

In addition to paying for therapies, Hope’s scholarship has allowed us to purchase curriculum specially tailored to Hope’s learning style, as well as outdoor equipment that helps her improve her upper body strength. Parker is also able to use the resources we are able to purchase for Hope.

Sometimes I don’t realize how lucky we are to live in Florida where we have choices in our children’s education.

What is one thing you would say to a parent struggling to help their child receive a quality education?

My advice to them is to remember that you know your child. I want my children to feel loved and, as a parent, to know when your child is loved.

When a child feels loved, there is no fear of learning. When a child loves to be somewhere like school, she will love to learn.

To learn more about World Down Syndrome Day, visit

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