BY ROGER MOONEY
JACKSONVILLE, Florida – Willette Treadway wants to help.
She wants to help her classmates, teachers and administrators at North Florida School of Special Education, where she is in the Secondary 3 classroom. She wants to help her family and friends.
She wants to help the homeless population in Jacksonville.
“One thing about me,” Willette said, “I like to help everybody.”
“She has a big heart,” said her mom, Lisa Diana.
Willette, 14, was diagnosed at 7 with an intellectual difference and language impairment, which are neurodevelopmental conditions that appear in early childhood. She is a high performer socially but a low performer cognitively, where according to her mom, Willette is in the second to fourth grade level range with math, reading and vocabulary.
She attended her district school from kindergarten through the sixth grade. And while Lisa said Willette did well with her Individual Education Plan (IEP), she felt Willette “wasn’t grasping the material.” Searching for a school that better fit her daughter’s unique abilities, Lisa enrolled Willette in North Florida School of Special Education (NFSSE) in Jacksonville for the 2021-22 school year. She attends the school assisted by the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA), managed by Step Up For Students.
“What I love about North Florida is they use different teaching styles and are a little bit more patient, especially with the smaller classes, to work with her and the material,” Lisa said. “I wanted her to be in a space where she would learn and retain and work with professionals who are hopefully going to get through to her maybe in a way that I can’t, or other teachers haven’t been able to.”
NFSSE provides an innovative academic and therapeutic setting for students, ages 6-22, who have intellectual and developmental differences. The secondary program is for students ages 14 to 17. They take academic classes and also emphasize vocational training, where they learn pre-employment skills.
The school’s transition program is for students ages 18-22. There, they learn how to budget money, pay bills, read bus schedules, and put together a resume. The students also work at jobs off campus with the goal of landing internships and fulltime positions.
“She would be devastated if she ever had to leave that school,” Lisa said. “She’s loving it. It’s everything I hoped it would be for her. This is the first time in her academic life that I don’t have to worry about her going to school.”
That some members of the school’s staff have children who attend or attended the school is a plus for Lisa, who is a nurse.
“As a teacher, an educator, someone who’s been where we are as parents,” Lisa said, “you have no idea the amount of relief it is to be able to talk to somebody who gets it.”
Willette arrived for her first day at her new school like a ball of sunshine, with a smile that lit up the campus. She made friends with everyone.
“I really like this school because it’s very nice,” Willette said. “All the teachers and staff are very nice here. All my friends are nice to me all the time.”
It wasn’t always that way at her previous school, where she was often the target of bullies.
Willette was one of the students picked to speak last January at a school pep rally last for Education Choice Week. She spoke of how well her classmates and teachers treat her, how she loved reading to “the little ones” on Thursday, how calm and peaceful she feels at the school and how the staff “lets me be the best Willette I can be.”
Lauren Perry, a Secondary 2 teacher at NFSSE, said that’s easy with a student like Willette.
“She loves to be around people,” Perry said. “She loves to talk and connect, and it’s a really beautiful thing for someone so young.”
While addressing the school, Willette also mentioned her job during dismissal.
She took it upon herself last year to help with the car line. She recruited two classmates to assist her when she fractured her right ankle falling off her scooter near the end of the year. The three held staff meetings every morning. Willette carried a clipboard.
“Yeah, that’s Willette,” Lisa said.
Willette’s cast was black and gold, matching the colors of her favorite football team – the Pittsburgh Steelers. Lisa’s mom wrapped a yellow Terrible Towel – a Steelers’ talisman – around Willette shortly after she was born. If you want to hear passion in Willette’s voice, ask her about who should be the Steelers quarterback.
If you want that passion to go up a notch, ask Willette about the homeless in Jacksonville – a segment of the population that is dear to her heart. She has visited homeless shelters and soup kitchens in the city with her grandmother on her father’s side. Lisa and Willette once made 150 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to distributed to the homeless shortly before the start of the pandemic. Last school year, Willette helped classmates make care packages for the homeless.
“Let’s say you need to make 150 bags of food for the homeless. Would you do it?” she asked. “Yes, I would do it.”
Willette wants to be a teacher.
“I like to help kids. I like to help teachers,” she said. “I like to help everybody.”
Lisa said her daughter is a natural caregiver, especially when it comes to her classmates. Lisa called her a “kid whisperer” because she makes those around her feel welcomed and appreciated.
Lisa could see Willette working in some capacity at a school like NFSSE. Most of all, Lisa said, “I hope that she’s an independent adult. She has her own strong personality. She’s not one to go with the crowd. She vibes to her own frequency and I love it, and I hope that never goes away.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.