Mentally handicapped. Autistic. Developmentally disabled. But one woman sees a new label: college student.
By LANE DeGREGORY
Published October 28, 2004
[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
Gigi Gonzalez helps Ricky Miles write a journal entry during computer lab time in the STAGES program at USF. Ricky is part of the new program that allows participants to explore career options and job opportunities and interact with USF students and staffers.
Chris Edwards checks his daily planner during computer lab time. Students spend two hours each day at their on-campus jobs, and then spend part of the afternoon in the computer lab. Every morning, students plan their days.
Ricky Miles cleans the walls of the racquetball court while working at the USF campus fitness center. Ricky works two hours a day, five days a week at the center.
TAMPA - Miss Gigi's classroom is like a closet: Long and narrow. Cramped. No windows.
She likes it this way.
If it were any bigger, her students might get too comfortable. They wouldn't leave.
Some would cling to the safety of their desks. Others would roam around, isolated in their own space, not having to connect.
No, this is better: this concrete block shoebox on the fourth floor of the Human Services building at the University of South Florida.
Her students have to get out, venture across campus. She makes them ride the bus, get a job, eat lunch with their friends, finish projects in a computer lab. Even take classes.
Just like every other college student.
* * *
"Okay. It's almost 9:30. Before you head out, does anyone have any questions about what they're supposed to do today?" Miss Gigi asks on this warm Tuesday morning.
Mike and Ricky shake their heads. Kajuanna smiles. Melissa stares at her lap.
Miss Gigi circles the long table that takes up most of her classroom, squeezing her thin hips between chairs and walls, checking a dozen students' daily planners: Mike Keberdle is working in the cafeteria. Ricky Miles has to report to the gym. Melissa Howard is helping at the elementary school. And this afternoon, Kajuanna Parker and Tony Hardy get to have lunch with their partners from Professor Allsopp's class.
"Okay, Tony? Be back here at 12:30 to meet them," Miss Gigi says.
Tony doesn't look up. "Tony," Miss Gigi says, bending closer, "are you still upset with me?"
A few minutes earlier, when Miss Gigi reminded him to call his boss, Tony had stomped out of the room, shouting, "Don't treat me like a high school student!"
That was the last thing Miss Gigi wanted to hear.
All semester, she's been struggling to help these kids gain independence, trying to give them a real college experience.
Most of Miss Gigi's students never dreamed of going to college. When you have autism or Down's syndrome or other mental disabilities, it usually isn't an option.
It wasn't for George.
George is why she's here.
* * *
Gigi Gonzalez is tall and trim, with thick, dark hair that falls in loose waves. Her black eyes flash when she's excited, which is almost always. Especially when she's in her classroom.
She speaks in staccato sentences, alternating encouragement and authority.
"You can handle this. The children are depending on you."
"You have a responsibility. If you're going to be late, you have to call your boss."
She's wearing skinny black heels, a slim skirt and a black and white sweater. Matching jewelry. Careful makeup. She has two grown sons. She's 46 but passes for a decade younger.
She's been teaching in Hillsborough County public schools for 26 years, all in special education. "Given my circumstances," she says, "I didn't see another choice."
For the last 15 years, Miss Gigi worked at Caminiti Exceptional Center, a school exclusively for special needs students. The whole time she was there, she wondered whether those high school kids wouldn't be better off mainstreamed, having peers as role models, getting to experience more of the world.
Then, in March, she helped pioneer this new program at the University of South Florida. It's a joint experiment between Hillsborough County public schools and USF called STAGES: Successful Transition After Graduation for Exceptional Students. It's for students who have earned a special needs diploma from a Hillsborough public school and are between the ages of 18 and 22.
Miss Gigi's charge seemed simple: give students with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to experience college life.
"They thought I would keep these kids in the same classroom all day, learning to type or something," she says. "I had other ideas."
She set up the cramped classroom at USF, tacked poster board on the walls so her students could write down their wishes. She set up an even smaller office across the hall, hung up her family photos. Then she set up a partnership with David Allsopp, an associate professor of special education.
She knew her students could teach as much as they could learn. She and Dr. Allsopp paired two undergraduates, who are studying to be special ed teachers, with each of Miss Gigi's students. Once a week, the aspiring teachers take the mainstreamed college kids to lunch somewhere on campus. The agenda: hang out, just like every other college student.
After all, you can go to classes and listen to experts and learn countless theories of education.
But until you take a mentally disabled man to Burger King, you can't know enough to help.
* * *
By 10 a.m., the classroom empties out. Most of the students scurry off to their jobs. Miss Gigi sinks into a chair beside Christina, who is at the computer.
Christina has autism. She just learned to send e-mails. She doesn't have to be at work for an hour, so she's typing away.
"Okay. Okay. Slow down. You've got time," Miss Gigi tells the young blond woman with glasses.
"Eleven. I have to be there at 11," Christina says, frantically clicking the keyboard. "I have to wipe all the tables. They always tell me I do a good job."
"Okay," Miss Gigi says in a softer voice than usual. "You've got time."
In August, when this semester started, Christina Hundley was afraid to leave her house alone. She had finished her senior year at Chamberlain High and earned her certificate. She figured her education was over.
She was "watching TV, or sleeping, or sweeping the driveway - I don't remember," when her mom told her about the letter from Miss Gigi.
"I was worried about crossing the street. But I wanted to go to college," Christina says, her eyes still locked on the monitor. "Now I'm really glad Miss Gigi makes me do so many things by myself."
Miss Gigi's class for this semester is full. A dozen potential students are on a waiting list. She interviews each student and their parents to make sure they agree to all parts of her program.
To begin with, Miss Gigi insists that her students learn to ride the public bus. Most of them will never be able to earn a driver's license. They shouldn't have to depend on their parents if they're going to college, she tells them.
She arranged everything. She called HARTline and arranged for her students to get bus passes. Then she tracked down a travel trainer with the city system who mapped out the students' routes and rode with them, from their homes to the corner by Miss Gigi's class, until he was sure they knew how to wait at a stop, transfer routes, read a schedule.
Next, Miss Gigi got her students ID cards, so they could go to the gym, use the library, cheer at football games. It's all part of the college experience.
Then she set out to find each student a job. She called around to everywhere she could think of on campus: the restaurants, the gym, Pizzo Elementary - which is on the USF grounds. She offered these places free labor for at least two hours a day if they would train and supervise one of her students. Most employers didn't want to take the trouble to train a special education student. There are plenty of "normal" college kids to fill those slots, thank you very much. Miss Gigi kept pushing. She taught her students to make resumes, write cover letters, dress for interviews.
In her cluttered classroom, her students practiced asking each other questions and, harder still, answering. Miss Gigi taught them to talk about their strengths, what they want to do. And to explain their limitations, admit they might need extra help.
Over and over, she had them rehearse their responses to the hardest query of all: What's wrong with you?
* * *
She still hates it when people ask George that question.
George is Miss Gigi's eldest son. She had him when she was in high school, living in Miami. He has Down's syndrome.
"So there I was, a teenage mom trying to raise a kid with Down's on my own," she says. "I thought, "Maybe this is God's way of telling me what I'm supposed to do.' "
She raised George while she was taking special ed classes at Florida International University. He grew up with her teaching kids like him.
He taught her more.
George is "trainable mentally handicapped," she recites in special ed lingo. "He's a lot worse off than most of my students. But he would have loved to be part of a program like this."
George has never had a paying job. He volunteers at thrift stores and hospitals. With the help of a live-in companion, he stays in an apartment of his own.
"He has a life," Miss Gigi says. "That's what I want for my students."
* * *
She has plans for them all. Even the ones who aren't sure what they want to do.
"Most of them, they just don't know what they can do," Miss Gigi says.
Mike, for example, is gifted with computers. He fixes the printer, helps his classmates download songs, creates professional-looking PowerPoint presentations. Miss Gigi helped him make business cards so he can offer his services to USF professors.
Ricky, so far, seems suited to the gym. He likes being surrounded by all the students, watching them ride those bikes that don't move, checking out the TVs mounted to the ceiling. He doesn't complain when they make him get down on his knees and scrub scuff marks off the racquetball courts. "He really has a great attitude," says Eric Hunter, who directs the campus recreation center. "We're glad we're able to help out with the program. And Ricky's really helping us."
Kajuanna wants to be a lawyer. Like the ones on CSI. In the prekindergarten class where she volunteers, she's always defending a little boy named D.J., who keeps getting in trouble. Melissa wants to open a day care center. She lives for playground time at Pizzo Elementary, where she helps out in a different prekindergarten class. "Melissa is a very kind person to work with," the teacher wrote in a recent review.
"My main goal, with this program, is to get all these kids paying jobs," Miss Gigi says. "I don't want them to be pitied. I want them to show these other students and professors they can earn their own keep."
So far, the on-campus employers haven't been willing to put her students on the payroll.
And only two professors have agreed to let them sit in on classes. Most teachers don't want to be burdened with the extra help they might have to give. Or any distractions that might arise.
"I just want them to be able to sit in the back and listen, so they can see what it's like," Miss Gigi says. "Some of them would get a lot out of a music class or a computer course or even art or something. But sometimes even educators forget what it is they're supposed to be teaching."
* * *
Just after noon, her students start trickling back to the closet classroom. Miss Gigi greets them at the door: "How was your day, Mike?" "Have a good time, Ricky?" "How were the kids, Kajuanna?"
Mike got to refill the cafeteria ice bin. Ricky scrubbed two racquetball courts. Kajuanna defended D.J. during a battle of the blocks, then cuddled her 3-year-old client during story time. Melissa tied two pairs of blinky sneakers and rescued a pig-tailed girl from certain death on the monkey bars.
All in all, a very good day.
"And how about you? Are you feeling better, Tony?" Miss Gigi asks as the sneakered boy slouches in.
This time, he looks up at her. "Yeah," he grunts. "Where's my lunch dates?"
Tony's favorite part of the program is having lunch with two female students who are studying to teach special ed. He loves rapping about music with them over pizza, sitting between them in the cafeteria. When other students from Miss Gigi's class try to join them, Tony shoos them away.
"He doesn't really like being seen with this group, because he thinks other people look at him differently," Miss Gigi says. "When he's alone, he thinks no one notices he's different. He tries so hard to fit in."
Miss Gigi keeps trying to tell Tony, "If you can't accept them, then you can't expect the other students here to accept you." But his buddies from Dr. Allsopp's class include him just fine.
He turns up his headphones and leans against the wall, waiting.
When two bubbly blond girls in drop-waist jeans arrive, his sullen face erupts in a smile.
For some of Miss Gigi's students, taking classes isn't all that important. Even the jobs aren't all that necessary. The interviewing and resumes and e-mails are great and all. But for some of these young adults, the best part is just being on campus, hanging around with other kids their age, learning how to order a chicken sandwich in the Burger King and pay for it yourself.