Local mother: Don't be afraid to fight for your child's education

Local mother: Don't be afraid to fight for your child's education

PAWTUCKET - Cindie Jack-Clarke remembers crying in frustration, wondering why the people who were supposed to be helping her son kept coming up short.

School has never been easy for Nicholas Clarke. While his older sister Emerald has found that success in academics and athletics come pretty naturally, he's struggled to keep up.

During his early years in school, Nicholas was one of those students who was always "falling through the cracks," says his mother. Every school official she talked to wanted to blame something for his issues, from social or behavioral problems to not being smart, but she knew better.

Nicholas, now 15, was not only smarter and a harder worker than anyone was giving him credit for, said Jack-Clarke, but he had his priorities straight from early on, helping others with their problems even as he struggled with his own.

"Since he was little, he just got it, he got the big picture," she said. "He was frustrated through life because of education, but he gets life."

The pain and disappointment of repeated failure was all but forgotten last month when Nicholas and his family learned that he had won the "Fabulous Freshman" award for academic achievement in the Freshman Academy at Tolman High School. A year younger than his sister, Nicholas had never won awards and accolades like Emerald. The freshman award was validation of her long-held belief that all her son needed was the right kind of help, said his mother.

Jack-Clarke once said that Tolman High School was the last school she would ever send her children. But today, with Nicholas flourishing in the academy run by Assistant Principal Debra Westgate-Silva, she says her previous perception is nothing like reality.

The teachers and staff at Tolman, much like those at St. Teresa School before, have taken Nicholas under their wing and educated him in the ways he learns best, said Jack-Clarke. They've done nothing but provide reassurance that her decision to send him there instead of a private high school was the right one.

A student in today's schools often has to have the "whole gamut" of problems, from attention deficit disorder to speech problems, to get the help he really needs, said Jack-Clarke. "Borderline" kids like Nicholas all too often are left to fend for themselves unless their parents spend "thousands of dollars out of their own pocket."

"If a parent is struggling and giving up and thinking the system has failed them, just go to another system," said Jack-Clarke. "Just jump through another hoop."

After many years of trying to get a diagnosis for what was wrong with Nicholas, Jack-Clarke said her son has officially been diagnosed with dyslexia, confirming "what I had known for so long."

"Professionals need to listen to parents more," she said. "Some of us really know our kids."

Nicholas said his mom never gave up on him and "would not take no for an answer" from school officials. His mom always told him that children are a gift from God, said Nicholas, and that parents are called to raise them to the best of their ability.

"I got the best mom because she's gone beyond, over, and above," said Nicholas.

Jack-Clarke noticed early on that Nicholas loved books, but only if she read them. He loved to draw and illustrate and tell her all about the books, but never wrote letters.

Both Nicholas and Emerald first attended a local private school. Though they were only a year apart in age, the academic gap between them kept growing.

Jack-Clarke voiced her concerns but said she was told that boys are just slower learners and Nicholas was simply struggling like others with phonics due to some missed time in school. The excuses "went on," she said, but she couldn't wrap her mind around any of them.

The grades continued to go down for Nicholas, so his mom took him out of that school and placed him at a public elementary school. The transition "was horrible," said Nicholas and his mother, as he struggled both with making friends and making the grade. Three years later, after a "bad experience" in grade 4, "with too many substitute teachers," Jack-Clarke moved her son to St. Teresa Catholic School in Pawtucket.

"That is when I finally got some validation," she said.

Fifth grade is such a "crucial grade," as students "are growing older and the workload is harder," said Jack-Clarke. The class was so big that three teachers were hired to help, a move that proved to be "the blessing of a lifetime for Nicholas."

Teachers Jane Knowles and Pearl Cartier were veteran educators who understood Nicholas better than anyone before, and he "thrived with their help," said his mother.

In grade 6, Knowles and Jack-Clarke approached Pawtucket school officials to ask for extensive testing. After months of "run-around and several meetings," school officials' findings "were inconclusive and they rejected any help for Nicholas," she said.

Frustrated again, Jack-Clarke said she drew comfort from St. Teresa Principal Mary Carney, who assured her that she and others would do everything in their power to help Nicholas achieve his potential. Carney came through, working with other staff to buy audio CDs, give Nicholas oral testing, and work with him after school.

Nicholas worked hard and was respectful to his teachers, winning the Shawn Nassaney scholarship for all-around male student in grade 8, said his mom.

What started at St. Teresa's, where teachers and staff listened and helped wherever they could, has continued at Tolman, said Jack-Clarke, where Nicholas is flourishing as a top student and member of the freshman football team.

It wasn't until September of this year that Jack-Clarke finally got the diagnosis she'd sought for so long. After getting on a waiting list for a program in Massachusetts in early 2012, Nicholas was finally tested this fall and diagnosed with dyslexia and mild attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Jack-Clarke wants to use her experience with Nicholas to encourage others "not to give up" on getting academic help for their children.

"The point from all of this is that people should not be discouraged if they have kids who really don't walk to the beat of the norm," said Jack-Clarke. "What is the norm now? Nobody knows what it is anymore."

She added, "you have to be very proactive for your kids. You can't just hear 'no' and walk away."

Anyone who would like to talk to Jack-Clarke about her experiences is invited to email pawtucket@valleybreeze.com for her contact information.