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Special youths let talent emerge

During this arts festival, children with disabilities get the opportunity to show their creative sides.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published March 19, 2004

BROOKSVILLE - Miranda Whalen gingerly held a funnel to a thin plastic tube and poured blue and green sand inside.

She slid the completed bracelet onto her arm, where it settled against the flowered temporary tattoo she had applied Thursday morning. Opening her bag, 14-year-old Miranda showed off other projects she completed during Hernando County's Very Special Arts festival.

"I made things," Miranda, who is autistic, said proudly, holding up a mask. She couldn't name her favorite part of the event, saying simply, "I like it all."

Since 1994, thousands of Hernando County special education students have enjoyed the morning of making art, playing music, watching performances and just hanging out with friends. On Thursday, close to 500 attended the activities.

But the school district is moving to a more inclusive, less segregated method of educating youngsters with disabilities. As a result, this was the last year for Very Special Arts.

"It's hard for me to see it not happen," said Liz Weber, district exceptional education director, who helped start the program a decade ago. "Yet I have a vision of seeing all of these students being able to participate with general education students in all activities, including the arts."

Next year, Weber said, the program will shift to school campuses - one or two to begin - so that all children will be able to participate. She suggested the fun that the special education students have with the event should include all children.

West Hernando teacher Diane Dell said her students looked forward to the event all year. They like to see past teachers and former classmates, she said, while also getting patient assistance on enjoyable art projects.

* * *

Most who participated in Arts Galore in 2004 were blissfully unaware that change was coming.

Under the huge oak trees of the Reilly Exceptional Student Education Center on Emerson Road, they gleefully designed balsa wood airplanes with brightly colored markers, squished and swirled paint onto paper with small glass plates and sprinkled sparkles onto neon-colored plastic masks.

"Boo!" 4-year-old Joseph Cameron shouted from behind his orange mask decorated with silver and red sparkles. He took it off and noticed only one eye was adorned.

"It should be two eyes," Joseph, who attends the early intervention program at Moton Elementary, said before heading off to get his face painted.

Heather Drummond, Joseph's mom, said she appreciated the opportunity for her son and others to get together and experience art.

"It's a neat thing for the kids," Drummond said. "All the kids are having fun."

West Hernando teacher Diane Dell said her students looked forward to the event all year. They like to see past teachers and former classmates, she said, while also getting patient assistance on enjoyable art projects.

"This is a special event they can go to and just socialize with their friends," said Dell, who did not know this was the last year for Very Special Arts.

As word filtered out that the event was drawing to a close, some couldn't help but express dissatisfaction.

Hernando High senior Jimmy Russo, 18, said he had gone to each festival as a special education student. He now volunteers. He suggested that Very Special Arts should not give way to inclusion programs because it's not fair to children with special needs.

"Look at all the kids," Russo said as he rinsed green paint from his hands. "They're having fun, and they're getting to interact with other children who have disabilities just like they do."

That interaction is important, he said, "so they know they're not alone. Today, they know they have something special to do."

Sharon Mechler, exceptional student education site director, noted that attendance Thursday was about half of last year's head count because inclusion is becoming the norm in district schools.

"Teachers and students want to stay in their classrooms," Mechler said.

She expected that the program will improve with the pending changes because it will enhance existing art offerings at schools rather than standing alone.

"We see bigger and better for our students," she said.

- Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 352 754-6115 or solochek@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 19, 2004, 12:27:22]


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