PINELLAS PARK – As students from all four campuses of Esther’s School gathered for a field day at their main campus in Pinellas Park, they celebrated more than the nearly ended school year.
They competed in simple games such as seated balloon pop, a dill-pickle-eating contest, bean bag tosses and a relay race involving hanging clothes on a line and folding them into baskets. They took up games of flag football and basketball and played with hula-hoops. All of the students in Esther’s School, about 60 total, have a special need that makes it difficult for them to function and prosper in a typical school environment. For many of them, the field day marked another year of slowly defying the projected limitations of learning abilities. “Our goal is to make them as independent as possible as adults,” said school principal Patricia Davenport. When one student with an autism-spectrum diagnosis came to the school, he wouldn’t look you in the eye, Davenport explained. Now, not only will he make eye contact, but also he’ll shake your hand and circulates with his peers during lunch. Another student was diagnosed with mild mental retardation. Doctors predicted she would never learn to read. But the 16-year-old student is reading and comprehending at a second-grade level now, Davenport said. “Now she’s understanding simple math. That’s an amazing achievement for this lady,” Davenport said.
The school’s success can be credited in part to the curriculum the teachers use, which allows students to master information at their own pace. “Part of it is being patient and very flexible,” she said. At least one teacher and a monitor oversee the small classes, answering students’ questions and helping them through the self-paced material, but not lecturing. Students start with what they know in each subject and build from there. The school also teaches life skills such as social skills, how to read a bus schedule, how to fold clothes and basics of personal finance. The students, diagnosed with anything from Down’s syndrome to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, can stay up to age 22. They’re not expected to return to a traditional school environment, Davenport said. The school was started almost eight years ago by Esther Berry of Clearwater, whose son was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. “She wasn’t happy with what he was getting or what he was not getting in public school,” Davenport explained. The private Christian school, which encourages the students to reach their greatest potential rather than the grade-level standards, was her answer.
Other than the Pinellas Park campus at 6565 78th Ave., the school has locations in Seminole, South St. Petersburg, New Port Richey, and many more. “I got to tell you, this is a fun place to work,” Davenport said. “It’s challenging but rewarding.”