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School had impact on students with special needs

POSTED: October 10, 2012 4:00 a.m.

If you aren't careful, it is easy to get pessimistic these days. We have gotten too loud, too adversarial, too politically-correct, too ethically-challenged, too secular and too narrow-minded - not to mention slightly humor-impaired.

Just when I think that maybe this world and those that occupy it are beyond redemption, I run across someone like Ava White and I am reminded that there are good people quietly doing good things for all the right reasons.

Ms. White runs the eponymous Ava White Academy in Gainesville and has been doing so for the past 15 years. The academy is a non-profit organization that works with young people in grade one through eight that have specific learning disabilities.

She began the academy business as a result of her private tutoring of special needs students and saw the need for a place to gather groups of children with learning disabilities.

A learning disability can mean a lot of things; from a short attention span to poor organizational skills to issues with reading, spelling, writing or math or slowness in finishing work.

Ava White Academy is based on the idea that every human being should have the opportunity to become the best person possible.

For a child with learning disabilities, this can be difficult. The youngster often becomes frustrated and gives up, resulting in feelings of inferiority and producing a bad self-image that can last a lifetime.

Disabilities sometimes are not easily recognized and can result in poor behavior in school. The kids are either too loud and disruptive or too shy to speak out; either behavior trying to cover their frustration at not being able to keep up with classmates. They have been bullies or have been bullied. For whatever the reason, they have not fit in.

At the Ava White Academy, they do.

Within a month or so, Ms. White says that the student is a changed individual.

They are part of a group where everyone is equal and are all learning together in a small classroom environment. Supporters say it is both exciting and rewarding to watch them change. That is because whatever is keeping them from learning is common to them all.

Once a child is prepared to transition to another educational environment, recommendations and assistance are provided to parents and the school as to the strengths, weaknesses, and needs of each student. Many former students have written Ms. White to tell of their success after leaving the academy.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to the academy to speak to 22 of these young people and their selfless instructors as a part of their "Read Aloud" program. This was no small deal. One of the previous participants had been Georgia First Lady Sandra Deal, so the pressure was on.

Actually, I didn't come to speak as much as I came to be interviewed by the kids. I found out what it was like to be on the other end of the interview process.

In the future, I will be the one to ask the questions.

They peppered me with questions about my Olympic experiences. They wanted to know my favorite memory of the Olympic Games; what sports I liked best and why. They wanted to know how I go about writing my columns.

They wondered how my wife and I met.

They saw photos of my paintings and gave me an instant critique. (They liked them.)

In an hour with a group of kids that I had totally underestimated, they did not ask an easy question and even had me on the ropes a couple of times.

They gave me a sheet on writing, including the use of punctuations, subjects, verbs and - get this - to "make sense."

Just thinking about that makes my head hurt; particularly the part about making sense. That could ruin my reputation.

I am pleased to say that the kids seemed to enjoy the session as much as I did and were nice enough to send me notes telling me that. As for me, I fell in love with each and every one of them.

On a day that will come soon enough, my cynical side will reappear and I will think the world is going to hell in a wheelbarrow. When I do, I need to think back to that marvelous day in Gainesville when I met a bunch of underdogs and their inspiring teachers who are working their hardest to make them better.

Bless them all.

You can reach Dick Yarbrough at or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139. Yarbrough is a part-time resident of Dawson County.


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