Education about more than academics for challenged child
JANESVILLE—Hands shoot up when teacher David Adler asks for volunteers to help eighth-grader Zach Olson.
Janesville's Franklin Middle School students eagerly walk with Zach, who has epilepsy and might fall down if he has a seizure.
Fourteen-year-old Zach suffers from other conditions as well. He beat a life-threatening brain tumor four years ago. He also lost much of his hearing and suffered brain damage because of intense chemotherapy and radiation.
Recently, doctors diagnosed Zach with Gorlin Syndrome. The rare genetic disorder makes him more susceptible to various forms of cancer, including skin cancer.
“We go to the doctor a lot,” said Zach's mom, Miranda Olson.
Zach struggles daily because of health challenges.
But teachers and staff create a community where he finds support and normalcy. They know education is about more than academics.
Miranda is grateful.
“I can drop him off and know that he is in good hands,” she said. “The whole staff goes above and beyond what they are expected to do. They really care.”
Miranda calls communication with teachers and others wonderful.
“They make things easy for me,” she said. “Mr. Adler will call me if Zach is not feeling good. We have contact through email, texting and phone calls. Mr. Adler then tells the whole staff what is going on with Zach.”
Adler met Zach last year when the boy was in his seventh-grade science class. Adler is in charge of a program for students who might be at risk for not making it through high school this year. He sees Zach daily.
“I like to get a feel for how his day is going,” Adler said. “He struggles to share how he is feeling.”
Zach is one of many students from many backgrounds. Some are physically or cognitively disabled. Some struggle with poverty or homelessness. Some are hungry.
“It's amazing how many of our kids really like to be here,” Adler said. “They want to be part of our school because it is a safe place. If we don't provide a place where kids feel welcome and cared for, learning won't happen.”
Students got to know Zach at an assembly his mother attended early in the year.
“When we make students aware of another student's story, we all benefit,” Adler said. “We teach students how to respect people with differences and decrease issues of teasing and bullying. We want everyone to understand each other at a higher level.”
He said it is important to know the story of every child who comes through the door.
School counselor Julie Konstanz has worked with Zach since seventh grade. She ensures he has access to what he needs to get an education.
“A lot of our students have so many challenges from poverty to discrimination,” Konstanz said. “With Zach, we are constantly struggling to make sure his emotional needs are met while we hold him to academic expectations. It is an ebb and flow.”
The empathy of Zach's peers impresses her.
“Everyone thinks they are self-centered middle-schoolers,” Konstanz said. “But they are open to learning about others. It is heartwarming for them to see that we are all in this together.”
Teaching staff, administration and the school nurse have been “great champions of trying to provide Zach with as much of a normal childhood as possible,” Konstanz said. “They care about him personally and as a student.”
Adler is grateful to work with Zach.
“I have a lot of love for Zach,” he said. “It's true for every kid. I love them like my own kids. If you don't, you shouldn't be teaching.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.