As Aaron Slater sat in the office of Hope Shingles, the assistant CEO of his high school, an ear-to-ear smile grew on his face for no particular reason. The grin was contagious, and is often seen in the halls of the Delta School in Northeast Philadelphia.
In just a few short weeks, that smile will be on full display when he graduates and continues on to college. Just a few years ago, walking across a stage in a cap and gown wasn’t something that even crossed his mind.
Slater, who is from Southwest Philadelphia, transferred to the Delta School in 2015. He had a bit of a checkered past and was not receiving the attention or care that he needed to succeed at his school, so Delta, which has approximately 70 students, seemed like a logical option.
“Our job is to provide a program to prepare students for a career and college,” Delta School administrator David Weathington said. “That’s the whole point of our school. We want kids to be able to have access to the general education curriculum, as well as preparing them further for whatever their dreams are.”
The Delta School is a private school for students with learning disabilities, as well as emotional and behavioral challenges, and for students on the autism spectrum. There are challenges for the teachers and students alike, but getting through them as a team is what makes it such a special place for everyone involved.
“It’s very important that the teachers are the right fit,” special education teacher Burnella Lancaster said. “You have to have a passion for kids and for kids to learn. They come with a lot of different issues, like emotional concerns, but they’re learning. And you have to be able to work with them.”
When Slater first arrived, he said he didn’t have many aspirations, especially not college. But the one-on-one education with teachers and administrators, that he could tell genuinely cared about him, has changed everything for Slater.
“I don’t think any other school would have pushed me and helped me out in areas like they have here,” Slater said. “Words can’t describe it. I’m just happy inside; that’s why I smile a lot.”
Slater is not the only one that smiles a lot during school. The teachers at the school have a very tight-knit, family-like community that they enjoy being a part of. Having a hand in teaching a kid like Slater makes shaping young minds even more fulfilling.
“It’s the joy of my life,” said Melanie Mann, who taught Aaron high school level math and science. “When I see a child finally getting it, when they have that ‘a-ha’ moment, when you can see the light bulb going off in their head, I get such a great thrill. I love it.”
The school’s curriculum, aside from a standard one, is all about career development, as well as character education, anti-bullying and social skills development. Shingles said their promise is to teach the whole child in a collaborative manner. The goal is to have the students become lifelong learners and very productive members of society when they leave.
One of the moments that really opened Slater’s eyes to what he could become was through his internship at the National Archives at Philadelphia, where he was responsible for cataloging film.
“It was different than I thought it would be because I thought people would be looking at me all the time,” Slater said. “Even before I even started, they showed me so much love. It was good for me. It opened my mind up, being around different people.”
According to Shingles, these experiences outside the classroom ignited an urge to want to help with different programs in the school, such as the Delta Delegates, an ambassador program that provides students with the opportunity to take leadership roles. His genuine interest in helping out has caught on with other students at the school, and Shingles said they try to emulate his behavior.
Slater has developed what he calls a “mental toughness” to be able to handle whatever is thrown at him. Obviously it translates to his education and helping other students within his school, but has also spilled over into the decisions about his future.
“He’s been very proactive in making sure he has a say in his future. He’s getting ready to go to college,” Weathington said.
“It seems like Aaron knows what he wants to do now,” Delta School principal Fannie Stephens said. “He knows which way he is going in life.”
Slater has options of where to attend college. He wants to go to either University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, the Philadelphia Institute of Technology or Muhlenberg College.
After that, he wants to own his own business or get into real estate—he hasn’t decided yet. But it is clear that his base education from his teachers at Delta School, along with his contagious smile, will take him as far as he wants to go.
Delta School is actively looking for individuals who excel in teaching and inspiring students with specialized care needs. If you or someone you know is interested in a career that truly makes a difference in the lives of our youth, go to http://deltaschool.us/ for more information and job openings.