Future Scholars

Walterine Pickett observes her 6-year-old grandson, Trey, as he begins an art project. Pickett is the driving force behind Future Scholars, Muskogee’s only special needs school, which will open in January.

A Muskogee woman with two autistic grandchildren says special needs students have the right to learn everything other kids learn, and she’s doing something about it.

“Once parents see the pain of their children getting kicked out of school, they are acutely aware of the value that a school like Future Scholars can provide,” said Walterine Pickett. “Muskogee Public Schools are suspending and expelling too many kids at an alarming rate because of behavior. Kids with undiagnosed special needs are being punished for something they want to do that they can’t, like normal social interaction. So we need to quit expelling them, quit punishing them and give them what they need, a nurturing environment.”

This is the motivating factor for Pickett, 55, who is the driving force behind Future Scholars, Muskogee’s only school designed to be a pathway program for special needs children ages 6 to 12.

Scheduled to open in January at St. Luke Baptist Church, 1624 Reeves St., Future Scholars can accommodate up to 20 students but will start with half that, she said.

There is already a waiting list of more than 20 students, and fees will be approximately $400 a month. Parent orientation will be in December.

Other motivating factors for Pickett to work with autistic children are her grandchildren, Jadon, 5, and Trey, 6, both of whom are autistic. Both are intellectually on the same grade level as their age-equivalent peers in public school, she said.

Parents with special needs kids wrongly try to make them fit in the world everyone else is in, Pickett said.

“Instead, you have to get into their world and adjust to them and fix their curriculum around their world,” she said.

Parents unaware of special needs symptoms may think their child will just outgrow disruptive or unusual behaviors or that the symptoms will only be temporary, she said.

“Parents need to learn to be truthful to themselves about their child, accept the fact that their child is a special needs child and embrace it,” Pickett said. “The longer a parent waits to have a child diagnosed, the more they delay their child’s ability to improve mentally, physically and intellectually.”

Pickett is concerned about providing for the needs of her students.

Each child will have an individual curriculum, developed based upon interviews with parents, the child, occupational and behavioral therapists and counselors.

The curriculum will be the same as in Muskogee Public Schools and will include sign language and piano. The school will use private institutions for testing.

From 1980 to 2000 Pickett taught in three different schools in Oklahoma City, with 15 of those years dealing with special needs students.

This past year she became a paraprofessional by taking 40 hours of state-approved special education paraprofessional training. Her certification has to be renewed every year, which means she will have to take additional classes.

All staff and teachers at Future Scholars have to sign a confidentiality agreement that guarantees the privacy of special needs students.

Additionally, all will undergo an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation background check and will be certified through a special needs program.

The staff includes a certified counselor, occupational and behavioral therapists and a nurse, all CPR certified.

Pickett tells parents that by the time their special needs child graduates from sixth grade at Future Scholars, they will be academically equivalent with public school kids.

Her concern for special needs children is apparent.

“These children are my heart; I just want more people to help them.”

Reach Mark Hughes at (918) 684-2908 or mhughes@muskogeephoenix.com.

If you go

WHAT: Autism Muskogee support group.

WHEN: 7 to 8 p.m. the third Tuesday of each month. Child care provided.

WHERE: Muskogee First Church of the Nazarene.

INFORMATION: (918) 616-5669, (918) 843-2167 or AutismMuskogee.org.

Autism facts

Children or adults with ASD might:

• Not point at objects to show interest (for example, not point at an airplane flying over).

• Not look at objects when another person points at them.

• Have trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all.

• Avoid eye contact and want to be alone.

• Have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings.

• Prefer not to be held or cuddled, or might cuddle only when they want to.

• Appear to be unaware when people talk to them, but respond to other sounds.

• Be very interested in people, but not know how to talk, play, or relate to them.

• Repeat or echo words or phrases said to them, or repeat words or phrases in place of normal language.

• Have trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions.

• Not play “pretend” games (for example, not pretend to “feed” a doll).

• Repeat actions over and over again.

• Have trouble adapting when a routine changes.

• Have unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound.

• Lose skills they once had (for example, stop saying words they were using).

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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