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Helping Caleb Become His Own Best Advocate

The EdFly is privileged to share how school choice is changing the course of one child’s life.

Karen Prewitt of Jacksonville, Fla., is a wife and mom of two children, Courtney, 25, and Caleb 8. Caleb has Down syndrome, which turned Karen into a passionate advocate for the special needs community. She works alongside many community organizations, including Special Olympics Duval County and the Family Care Council for the Northeast Florida area. Our community engagement team met with Karen to discuss her hopes and dreams for Caleb as well as how having access to educational choice has impacted her son.

Karen's Family picture (800x533)
8.08 Photography

Can you reflect back to the time when you first learned Caleb had Down syndrome? What went through your head?
Although I had Caleb at 44, we did not know prenatally that he had Down syndrome. The room got pretty quiet after his birth, and I could tell something was up. The doctors knew immediately, and we tested him after to confirm. I loved him from the first time I saw him. Like when anything suddenly changes the course of your life, we felt shocked and were a bit fearful. But slowly it just became a part of our lives. The fact that he has Down syndrome just meant we had some extra work ahead, and it paved the way for my involvement in the disability community and advocacy efforts.

What challenges come with parenting a child with Down syndrome?
Caleb has shown us the gift of differentness. It’s taught us to be more accepting and more appreciative, to slow down a bit and enjoy things that we might have been too busy for before. Would we sometimes like to lessen the impact of the characteristics of Down syndrome? Sure. But parenting, in general, is not easy. All kids have their unique limits, struggles and successes, regardless of their abilities. We just take his challenges on one at a time, like we did with our adult daughter.

Caleb is a recipient of Florida’s McKay Scholarship, which gives Florida students with special needs the opportunity to attend a participating private school. Can you share how this scholarship has impacted his educational experience?

There are so many educational options available to parents these days, much more than when I or my older daughter were in school. We knew early on that private school was the best option for Caleb. Fortunately the one we selected for Caleb accepted the McKay Scholarship. For us, the scholarship meant having to choose between making a steep financial commitment versus having the ability to send him to the best school we could find without burden. We are extremely thankful for the scholarship and to Florida leaders for empowering us with the ability to choose the best educational option for Caleb.

What are common misconceptions the general public has about the Down syndrome community?
That our kids can’t learn. When Down syndrome students are held to high expectations and receive high-quality instruction, they thrive. Communication with parents, teachers, therapist, aides and administration is also key. Thanks to the excellent and challenging instruction Caleb has received at school, he loves to learn!

What are your hopes and aspirations for Caleb?
When Caleb began Pre-K, friends suggested we write a Vision and Mission Statement for him. What did we see Caleb doing one, five, ten years from then? It was one of the best pieces of advice we received, and it helped us to truly visualize what life might be like for Caleb as he grows into adulthood. In the end, we want him to have friends, to be a productive member of society and to love God. Eventually, we’d love for him to be his own best advocate and an entrepreneur!

Have you seen progress in the number and quality of educational and extracurricular opportunities available to children with special needs? How can the public do a better job to meet the educational and developmental needs of children with special needs?
We’ve been involved in the disability community now for just over eight years, and I’ve seen much growth and awareness in the supports and services our children and youth need to be successful — although there is always room for growth. I encourage the public to continue recognizing and supporting the notion that all children can learn but need a variety of approaches and educational options in order to succeed.