Thursday, May 27, 2010

Russian adoptee in Tennessee succeeds in school for those with learning disabilities

From The Tennessean:

GRASSLAND COMMUNITY, Tenn. — Michael Heroux (pictured), adopted out of an orphanage in Russia at age 4, malnourished and abused, ill with pneumonia, partially deaf due to repeated untreated ear infections, and unable to speak in any language, graduated from high school on May 20.

At a time when adoptions of Russian children are in the news because of the case of Torry Hansen, the woman from Shelbyville who sent her 7-year-old adopted son back to Moscow alone, Michael Heroux's story is both timely and instructive.

"Michael became the person he is at Benton Hall Academy," says his mom, Martha Heroux. "Were it not for Benton Hall, he wouldn't be graduating from high school. He never would have been able to play sports. He wouldn't have learned how to be part of a team or how to take instruction from coaches. The best he could have hoped for would be bagging groceries and living at home."

Instead, Michael earned a regular high school diploma and is looking forward to learning to live independently and someday becoming a truck driver.

"Adoptive children face a variety of challenges, including a higher rate of learning disabilities than children in the general population," said Rob McFadden, headmaster of Benton Hall Academy. "Some adopted kids face emotional challenges which contribute to their learning difficulties. In addition, many children adopted from eastern European countries have been in institutions and suffer higher rates of attachment and behavioral disorders. Some, like Michael, have suffered the effects of malnutrition during critical periods of brain growth. These are kids who will have difficulty performing well in a traditional classroom."

Founded in 1977, Benton Hall specializes in providing a nurturing yet challenging environment for students with learning differences in grades 3–12.

"Thirty percent of our students at Benton Hall were adopted, and of those, half were adopted internationally," continued McFadden. "We are equipped to deal with the unique challenges of adoption in a way that traditional classrooms aren't. We also specialize in kids who have been diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, an autism spectrum disorder, or another learning difference that impedes their ability to perform well in a traditional classroom."

Martha Heroux said Michael had attended public schools in Florida and Chicago through fourth grade.

"We had to fight for everything we got with Michael," remembers Martha. "He needed more than they could give. He was teased and bullied and put down. And we worried that he would end up involved in drugs or a gang because he didn't know how to say no."

The family moved to Franklin before Michael started fifth grade, and halfway through the year Martha found Benton Hall.

"Everything changed at Benton Hall. The classes were small. They were willing to work with him where he was. He was doing well in reading but needed more help in math. He was able to play sports. Benton Hall is the kind of school where the other basketball players will keep passing the ball to the worst player on the team and setting the play up for him so he can make a basket. Where else will you find that?

"Benton Hall found a way to reach him, and that's when he started growing academically and socially."

In his seven years at Benton Hall, Michael has played golf, soccer and basketball, winning everything from the most improved award to the coach's award for the player who shows up every day and is willing to do what's asked of him with a smile.

"I started playing sports as soon as I came to Benton Hall," said Michael, affectionately known at school as "Mouse."

The Benton Hall community tends to become a kind of extended family.

The Herouxs experienced that first hand when Martha was diagnosed with cancer, and then her husband, Mike, died in December of 2008.

"The school stepped in and provided meals for us for a solid month after Mike died," said Martha. "Mike coached Michael's basketball team and it was a blow not only to our family but to the school as well. They passed the hat and collected more than $300 for Michael at Christmas.

"When Mike and I were sick, Michael had to do a lot of things other kids wouldn't have had to do," continued Martha. "He did the grocery shopping. He learned the value of money and how to comparison shop. He did the laundry. Those are things he couldn't have managed without five or six years at Benton Hall."

Michael recently had to describe himself for part of a senior paper. "I'm a happy person, I work hard, I'm a good friend, and I support others," he wrote. "I support others because they have supported me. I can make decisions."

It's quite the accomplishment for a young man whose parents were told 15 years ago that he would never function above the first grade level.