What happens to special needs students when they age out of the public school system?
It’s a question that communities are faced with more and more these days, as social services shrink and populations grow and families disperse.
The question nagged constantly at Dr. Senetta Carter, a school educator of exceptional students, 15 years ago, when she saw a preponderance of students unable to graduate high school because they couldn’t pass the FCATs. And not all were members of her exceptional student community.
So she and another teacher started working with these students, helping them to get either a GED or diploma, clearing the path to a paying job. Today, what started as a small literacy program has developed into the Hollywood-based non-profit Rayfield Family Literacy Inc., a daytime school program serving people with a variety of special needs and named after Dr. Carter’s late brother. Additionally, the program now includes the Rayfield School of Excellence, an approved Florida Private School for grades K through 12.
“We started out helping people with disabilities and no diplomas, hence the word ‘Literacy’ in our name,” explained Carter, now the principal of the school, “and now we’ve developed into a full-service adult day school that teaches job skills, financial skills, life skills, and actually provides paying jobs for our ‘kids’ — and creates a sense of community that explains why we have the word ‘Family’ in our name as well.”
Rayfield was opened in 2003 in Central Hollywood and moved to its current location on Polk Street near Dixie Highway in 2014. Its unassuming entrance conceals an impressive collection of buildings which include offices, classrooms and workrooms where a total of about 175 students aged 22 and up learn, socialize, work, and interact with others seven days a week, including holidays, and generally take ownership of this place that, for several hours every week, they call home.
While not officially a faith-based organization, Rayfield is run by mostly faith-based people. It has a small board of directors that guides them and works closely with ten churches that support them. It receives no ongoing specific funding but sustains itself on Medicaid via the students, along with occasional grants. Everything else, Carter said, is donations.
The school continually holds local outings to places such as restaurants, parks, and businesses, and employees and students are always at work decorating the many colorful offices and classrooms to reflect changes in themes, seasons and holidays. The school hosts monthly dances in the onsite cafeteria, and frequent events like a Prom and a Winterfest Ball, where the art and dance classes get to display their talents.
“Our goal is to make our developmentally disabled students ‘community appropriate’, ”continued Carter.
Inside the warren of rooms is a great buzz of activity, where students, teachers, and volunteers work on life skills, educational skills, financial skills and work skills…and work. Rayfield has contracts with companies including Flanigans, Headliners and Badia Spices for in-house piecework, where students work together packaging products for retail distribution and are paid weekly for their output. They’re then capable, thanks to their training, of counting and handling their wages.
“They like working, being connected to the community,” noted Carter. “They feel accomplished, part of the working world.”
Even more importantly, the students have created and read each day their own “bill of rights,” which reminds them that they matter just as much as anyone else. They run a weekly food pantry every Saturday where they feed about 400 people in the community, as well as periodic community activities like a recent back-to-school event where they distributed free school uniforms, book bags, and school supplies to local children, in conjunction one of the churches.
“It’s important that they have the sense of giving back, to know that no matter how little you might have, there is always someone with less,” stressed Carter. “That just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you don’t have ownership.”
By ownership, Dr. Carter means a sense of family, especially to those who have little other. 95 percent of Rayfield students live in group homes and spend at least some holidays at the school.
“We provide ‘wraparound services’ — we fill the gaps,” she said. “We offer family, employment, job skills, even grandparents! Kids need family, they need mature people in their lives, and we have a volunteer program through AARP where have mature adults come in and bond with them, talk with them and listen to them, and work with them to talk through their difficulties.
“To many of our students, we are their family,” she declared. “We are here together, we’re open and here for them, they always have somewhere to go and someone to be with, holidays included.
“And that,” she says warmly, “is us.”
Rayfield Family Literacy currently has openings and is hoping to find more people who want to learn job and life skills. For information, Call 800 913 5481 or visit http://www.rayfieldfamilyliteracy.com.