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Student's artwork displayed in capital


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2001

Nikki Wolfson, daughter of Cheryl and Dr. Bernard Wolfson of Treasure Island, is one of five young artists with disabilities whose work appeared in an exhibit at the Capitol rotunda March 19 through 23. Nikki, a seventh-grader in the exceptional student education program at John Hopkins Middle School, was recognized at a congressional reception Tuesday in Washington, D.C., as part of arts and education month festivities.

The Capitol Hill exhibit was the result of a national call for art from students in kindergarten through 12th grade who have participated in VSA (formerly Very Special Arts) programs.

John Hopkins art teacher Nancy Therrien learned on the Internet about the non-profit organization's commitment to students and adults with disabilities. She agrees with its goal of using alternative teaching strategies to create learning experiences in inclusive environments -- those that blend exceptional education students with regular education students -- and asked the school's exceptional student education teachers to send their children to her seventh-period art class.

"Their work has turned out so incredibly well," she said. "Every piece is so framable. They're way beyond crayons and flowers."

But Nikki's painting, "Flowers for Momma," was the only piece Ms. Therrien entered in the VSA contest. She said she had a feeling it would be a winner.

Nikki's mother, Cheryl, said that being in Ms. Therrien's class has been good for her daughter, who is educable mentally handicapped. She said creating art has taught Nikki, 13, to take her time and not rush through things.

She said Nikki's other artistic and extracurricular activities also have helped her development.

"Her violin and dance lessons have taught her structure and the importance of repetition," she said. "Getting up at 6 a.m. for swimming lessons has taught her responsibility and commitment."

In spite of her learning disabilities, which include reading comprehension and problem solving difficulties, Nikki maintains a grade point average high enough for membership in the Junior National Honor Society. She also has a spot in the choral focus group at John Hopkins, a magnet school for arts and communication.

Mrs. Wolfson said Nikki works hard to keep up. She spends an hour three mornings a week with a tutor and works with an occupational therapist to refine her motor skills.

"The expectations are less for ESE students," she said, "but there are still expectations."

Nikki's father, Bernard Wolfson, gives credit for Nikki's success to his daughter's determination, to her tutor and to the school system.

"In my day, a little girl like Nikki would have been lost," he said. "All the educators Nikki has been blessed (with) have had such patience. Nikki has never been made to feel different from other children. She's always been made to feel a part of her class."

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