Graduation is a day every parent dreams about for their kids. One filled with reflections of happy childhood memories, aspirations of hope, excitement, pride and all the possibilities in the world for a bright future. But for some children, the journey has been a long, tough road riddled with doubt the day will ever come. Too many don’t make it and fall through the cracks. But with a new progressive Collier County Public School superintendent and a unique partnership with the David Lawrence Centers, children with learning disabilities and behavioral, mental health and substance use problems – whom many had given up on ever receiving a diploma – are making it to the big day thanks to an innovative, new program.

The Educational Day Treatment (EDT) program helps struggling children with exceptional needs progress in school and prepare for life after school. The unique classroom setting, far removed from other attention-seeking trouble makers, that features a very small class size, low teacher to student ratio and a self-paced learning model just successfully celebrated its first graduate with all A’s and B’s.

Josh, a 17 year old with ADHD and a history of substance use and a mood disorder, had an extremely low grade point average and a recent arrest for disrupting a school a function and another marijuana related charge that made him the perfect fit for the EDT program. He and three other seniors with all odds against them, were handpicked to benefit from the EDT program’s specialized services which include individualized instruction to meet the unique needs of each student with a strong emphasis on social skills development, behavior management and positive behavioral supports. The children can also receive mental health and substance use services including psychiatric medical services, evaluations, assessments and ongoing consultation with on-site treatment planning, case management review and individual and family therapy. Bi-weekly, joint instructional planning sessions with the treatment team including the school’s teacher and behavioral analyst and the David Lawrence Centers therapist ensures the best outcomes for each child.

Josh and his family’s difficult journey began when he was three. Daycare was the first of many schools where his parents received routine disconcerting calls from teachers. Trouble focusing at circle time, inability to sit still, fighting with other kids, problems with authority and following directions and a hatred for homework where just a few of the topics of discussion and his grades suffered greatly along the way. His mother describes his childhood as chaotic adding, “He has been on every medication there is and gone through years of counseling. The teachers could notice a difference immediately, but when it wore off in the afternoons it was terrible. He could never nap and he had trouble sleeping at night.”

When he was a freshman in high school, he started hanging out with the wrong crowd and discovered marijuana. He believed it worked better to relieve his symptoms then the ADHD medications, so he began a dangerous, self-destructive path of mixing the two or not taking it all so that he could illegally sell his pills to buy marijuana and cigarettes. This chemical irregularity led to violent outbursts, fights in and out of school and his legal troubles. He fought with everyone – teachers, other kids and his parents and brothers. He shares, “Sometimes I’d be happy one minute and then out of the blue, I would think about dying. I used to think intentionally overdosing.” School suspensions only rewarded him with a chance to get out of school and get into more trouble. Discipline at home led to more anger. One explosive, violent fight with his father culminated in wild, threatening behavior that worried them and the police officers who were called to help. They brought him to the Crisis Stabilization Unit where he was Baker Acted.

The courts became involved and he violated probation more times than he could count resulting in several brief stints in jail. His loving, patient and supportive family was beginning to doubt graduation day would ever come and they skeptically enlisted in the new EDT program with little hope.

Josh says the program worked for him because he “quickly established a great rapport with his therapist, thrived on the self-paced learning model where he could focus on one course at a time and loved the no homework rule”. He adds, “It was really helpful being able to talk to someone other than your parents about using drugs and drinking. My teacher was awesome too. I always felt like I could talk to him. The individualized, focused rewards system really motivated me to get my work done and achieve my weekly goals. I couldn’t wait till Fridays to get my reward.” Mom shared, “His counselor accepted Josh for who he was, they had an honest, open relationship and she made herself available to him day and night. She believed in him and advocated on his behalf with the judge and teachers.” She believes the program works because they immediately address and work through a classroom situation when it occurs rather than suspending them. The team effort between the teachers, therapists and family was a huge factor in his success.

Now that Josh is off all medications, clean from drugs, staying out of trouble, off probation with diploma in hand… the sky is the limit. His first order of business is to “get a job and buy a car” where he plans to happily serve as the designated driver. He shares, “I’m never going back. I’ve learned to just walk away instead of blowing up, turn on my music when I’m mad and isolate myself from kids who are going to get me into trouble.” Armed with feelings of pride, relief and appreciation the pursuit of his dreams begins today.

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