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Defying Expectations

As a mom, I always wanted the same for my two daughters: fun childhoods, fulfilling social lives, and excellent schools. From the beginning, I wanted both my daughters to go to the same schools and enjoy the same rich academic experiences. That’s because this often isn’t the case for students like my youngest daughter, Niah. Niah, an intelligent, spunky, and opinionated individual, was diagnosed with autism at three years old. I wanted to make sure Niah had the fullest experience at school where she would be challenged and held to high expectations every single day. I knew our local public elementary school wouldn’t provide what I was looking for in terms of academics or parent engagement opportunities. So I enrolled Niah and her cousin Victor at Rocketship Mateo Sheedy.

I didn’t want Niah to be a victim of low expectations, dismissed because she has different needs. I wanted her to have every opportunity, and I wanted her to go to college. All kids deserve to have somebody believe in them and that they can do great things, whether or not they have a learning difference. The teachers at Rocketship believed in this, too, just like me. I decided that Rocketship was the best place for my daughters because the teachers would hold them both to high expectations. I remember walking through the doors of Rocketship Mateo Sheedy for the first time, seeing all the college posters on the wall. Right then, I knew this place was different.

Like many students on the spectrum, Niah started out at Rocketship with full 1:1 paraprofessional support throughout her day. However, I worked closely with the Rocketship team to ensure that this was only temporary because my goal for Niah was that she would be able to go about her school day without this support by the time she reached 3rd grade. And Niah did just that. Niah learned the Rocketship model, understood her schedule and was able to navigate her day because of the safe structures Rocketship created for her and her classmates. She was able to learn and grow in the same classroom as her other peers, thanks to Rocketship’s inclusive approach to special education.

This was possible because Niah’s Rocketship teachers gave her the opportunity to thrive and become an integral part of the school community. Every summer, right before school started, she met with her teachers to get comfortable with where her classes were and to meet all her teachers so she could start building her relationship with them. This was such an important thing for Niah and myself because it allowed her to feel adjusted by her first day of school.

Home visits allowed me to feel very connected and engaged with Niah’s teachers. But more importantly, these visits gave Niah the space to ask as many questions as she wanted of her teachers so that she felt comfortable diving into the new school year. How were they going to run morning launch this year? Would she have enough time to eat her garbanzo beans at lunch and play with her friends?

I believe every teacher at Rocketship has a genuinely caring heart when it comes to their students. Niah’s teachers went above and beyond to ensure she felt comfortable every day, which was super important for a child who easily felt overwhelmed and scared in new environments or new situations. Sometimes it would be difficult for Niah to connect with her peers, and her teachers recognized that but sought to ensure her classmates understood her. I will never forget the time her first-grade teacher read a book to the whole class about a child that was a little different – just like Niah. It was the teacher’s way of telling her classmates about Niah, but in a way that was super kind and sweet. The story really resonated a lot with the classmates in Niah’s cohort, and they were also so kind and supportive to her throughout the years. I’ll never forget the compassion of Niah’s teachers with her and their partnership with me in Niah’s learning.

As I sit here looking at Niah across the room, who is listening to a virtual lecture as a freshman at San Jose State University (a competitive four-year public college) student, I feel so proud of how far Niah has come in her academic and social development. Niah started out needing constant one-on-one support at the outset of her academic journey and is now self-sufficiently moving through college courses at a major university – proof of how far my daughter has come. I know Niah is doing well now because Rocketship provided a solid foundation for her that has carried her through her entire academic career. Niah’s Rocketship experience not only helped her to excel in elementary school, but also helped her through middle school, high school, and now, college.

Acirema, Victor, and Niah (left to right) at Rocketship Mateo Sheedy

Published on November 4, 2021

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