Choose a school that embraces differences

Photo of David Chubbs Stillman raising his arm in victory while being picked up by his teammates on the basketball court. Photo Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

January 4, 2010: David “Chubbs” Stillman was a high school hero Monday night, and this is the sort of happy ending everyone needs to know about.

“Chubbs,” 18, is a senior at Kirkwood High School, who until Monday night had never played even one minute of high school basketball. He is a special-education student with more than a half-dozen learning disabilities who has spent the last four years behind the bench, always in the shadows, never in the spotlight, passing out cups of water, dry towels and high-fives to the Pioneers’ varsity team as their dedicated student manager.

But on Monday night, he was in a white Kirkwood uniform, wearing his favorite jersey number 23 — Michael Jordan’s number — and with the clock ticking down the final seconds in a game against Fox High, he settled into the far corner in front of his own bench, patted his hands together, planted his feet perfectly behind the 3-point line and waited for a perfect pass from senior guard Ahmad Hicks.

And ….

Read the whole story at the St. Louis Dispatch. Yep, go read it and come back.

As you can surmise, the story is about a student with significant learning disabilities being embraced and supported by his classmates and teachers. I share his story here because I doubt his classmates just one day decided they would be nice to the kid who was different from everyone else.

I’m guessing this outlook began much earlier, growing out of a deliberate effort by his parents and teachers, perhaps in primary or even preschool.

It’s a question to ask when selecting a preschool or elementary school. How are kids with special needs or differences approached in the classroom? How is bullying handled? You want a school that teaches kids to embrace differences, even celebrate them.

My daughter’s former preschool accepted kids who couldn’t be placed elsewhere. It was a university preschool, so it viewed these challenges as learning opportunities. One kid had severe food allergies. Another kid was subject to occasional outbursts and was assigned a dedicated attendant. All of the students were educated about these differences and were perhaps more accepting of them than their parents.

Instructors at my daughter’s elementary school teach a principle of character each month (compassion, trust, respect, understanding, etc.). They also have a program for helping kids who are experiencing trouble making friends — “friendship groups” for social skills development. On an academic level, students falling behind have an Individual Education Plan developed to address specific needs. The school has also held proactive bullying workshops for parents.

One day I observed a second grader walk into the school office before class began to report that his sister had been called an insult by a fifth grader on the playground. You might say kids will be kids, but I love that my school teaches kids not to put up with crap. Or to say it the other way, teaches them to be nice to one another and to expect respect.

I did some sleuthing and tracked down someone via e-mail David’s father and (after asking, “Are you him?”) I asked him about David’s school environment and whether David’s teammates knew him prior to attending high school. Here is the father’s response:

“I am the proud father of David Stillman.

David’s acceptance in the Kirkwood School system started in kindergarten and blossomed from there. During elementary school and middle school, he formed many friendships and the acceptance and support began to take hold and reinforced David’s desire to attend Kirkwood High School. The love, support and acceptance from his teammates started during his freshman year and continued these past four years.

The majority of the players are individuals he did not know prior to attending high school. The players are outstanding young men and have been very supportive of David’s role with the team. In addition, the coaching staff has been phenomenal in their support of David and making him an integral part of the team.

My wife, David’s two brothers and a sister, and I have created a loving and supportive environment at home, which carried over to school.”

Update: I asked David’s father a few more questions and received these responses:

“In terms of his acceptance into the school system at an early age, it almost was automatic. His kindergarten teacher and classmates were fantastic and very supportive. He was in a special education class, but also took several courses each year where he was mainstreamed. We have not encountered any issues during his 12.5 years in the Kirkwood School System. He has always been treated with respect.

The school administrators and teachers treated David just like any other student. I think that the level of acceptance had alot to do with David’s personality and how he interacted with fellow students. David is very outgoing, personable, and fun-loving. In addition, my wife and I took a very active role in terms of being involved with school activities, attending parent/teacher conferences on a regular basis, and coaching his sports teams run through our church (Catholic Youth Council). David played basketball, volleyball, and baseball on a regular basis.”

See also a second article with more details, Missouri team manager fulfills special dreams and A special night for Stillman in Missouri has some teammate quotes.

And just because, here’s a related video from 2006 about an autistic basketball player:


5 Responses to “Choose a school that embraces differences”

  1. Bri says:

    A good tear jerker for Wednesday morning!! Loved the story!!

    January 6th, 2010 at 6:28 am

  2. Christy B. says:

    It saddens me to think about all of the bullies out there who are missing out on a beautiful friendship. My husband had a friend growing up who had Down’s Syndrome. I had the pleasure of meeting this young man at my husband’s high school reunion. They had little awards at the reunion and the award for most successful was given to my husband’s friend. I thought it was really wonderful. He sent us the sweetest card when our son was born.

    January 6th, 2010 at 1:29 pm

  3. Tiffany says:

    My son attends pre-k at a Catholic school (PK3), and in his class is a boy with Down’s Syndrome. Having him in the class has been a great learning experience for all children, understanding what the boy can and can’t do well, and working together in knowing what they all can do. We’re very fortunate that he has this opportunity to learn now about other children with disabilities beyond outward physical ones (our neighbor is in a wheelchair), and to accept them as part of the school community. Fortunately his teacher has a Master’s Degree in Special Ed, and has excelled at making the boy just another part of the class as far as the children are concerned.

    January 6th, 2010 at 2:47 pm

  4. LARRY says:

    Well, here’s a model for all America; notice the administrators, teachers and parents all have inclusive values.

    January 7th, 2010 at 1:43 pm

  5. erin says:

    i’m proud to say this high school is but minutes from my house. what a wonderful read.

    January 17th, 2010 at 2:32 pm

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