Guiding Hands students, families, friends and alumni marked the special needs school’s 20th anniversary at Family Fun Day last Thursday.
Guests enjoyed bounce houses, a photo booth, a parent resource fair, live stage entertainment and a free hot dog lunch at the event the founders called a heartfelt thank you to the community.
In 1993 co-founders Cindy Keller and Starranne Meyers opened their campus on the old Mather Air Force base and on their first day they served two students. In 1997 they moved to the El Dorado Hills Business Park and have educated thousands of students over two decades.
Keller and Meyers, both credentialed teachers with master’s degrees in special education, shared the same vision of opening a school that had strong academics for children with special needs, but would also advocate for the whole child’s well-being. “We were frustrated with the lack of academic and behavioral expectations we were seeing,” said Keller. “We believe language development is the key to behavioral regulation.”
Today Keller is the executive director of Guiding Hands and Meyers is the school principal; 174 students are enrolled this school year, which culminates at the end of the month. The 2013-14 school year begins in August.
The private school is fully accredited through grade 12 by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and high school students can graduate from Guiding Hands with their diploma. Students between 2 and 19 years old are welcome and are placed in one of the campus’ 17 classrooms, usually by age and grade except for those students with more cognitive delays, said Meyers. The class sizes are capped at 15 with one credentialed teacher per class. Aides and other support staff make the adult to student ratio five-t0-one.
The school’s guiding motto is “Acceptance Of All, Exclusion Of None.” And “acceptance” to Meyers and Keller is multi-faceted. Keller and Meyers are proud that their staff and students are ethnically diverse and their students’ abilities are across the spectrum. “Many of our kids you wouldn’t even know have a diagnosis,” said Keller. “Twenty percent return to mainstream school each year.”
“We are one big, beautiful world and one big, beautiful community here at Guiding Hands,” added Meyers. “Special ed kids aren’t to be feared. We all have strengths and weaknesses.”
Student needs are individualized and school staff offer a continuum of in-house services — child psychologist. occupational therapy, etc. — so families don’t have to go multiple places. There is also daily round-trip van service for door-to-door student transportation.
Georgetown resident Erin Wylie looked for the right school for son Brenhan, 17, nearly half his life before finding Guiding Hands. When Brenhan was 9 he nearly died after a serious bike accident. “He shouldn’t have survived,” said his sister Breighlyn, 16, who sat with their mother at the celebration as Brenhan played basketball nearby.
“Brenhan has no executive functioning skills whatsoever,” explained Erin. “He doesn’t have the ability to reason or think things through; he’s very impulsive and has the social mentality of a 5-year-old.”
The Wylies exhausted every resource to educate their son, trying several different schools in their home school district and homeschooled him for two years before enrolling in Guiding Hands last October. That move has been “nothing short of a blessing,” said Erin. “I love how they’re open to whatever it takes to teach your child. Brehnan’s learned to be more self-sufficient and to ask for his needs instead of stewing like before.”
While some of the older students rotate teachers for different subjects, Brenhan stays with his teacher Vicky Peoples. “She’s been phenomenal,” said Erin. “She keeps his stress level down and we see he’s gotten his old sense of humor back.”
Erin said she knew, “There was the perfect school for Brenhan out there. We just wish we’d found it sooner.”
In all, 23 different school districts from four different counties are represented at Guiding Hands. “If a school district doesn’t have a comparable special ed program, the district picks up the cost of sending a student here,” said Keller. “We also offer a private pay option.”
Sacramento resident Xzavier Burrell, 12, and his mom Angie enjoyed themselves at the celebration too. At Guiding Hands since the third grade, Xzavier will enter eighth grade this August. While his twin brother has bipolar disorder and autism and lives fulltime in a special needs residential treatment facility in Bakersfield, Xzavier has hyperactivity, hearing loss and speech delay yet is thriving at Guiding Hands, according to his mom. “When he started here you couldn’t understand him,” she explained. But when asked what his favorite thing about school is, Xzavier quickly answered, “The work.”
What does this 20-year milestone mean to Meyers and Keller and what dreams do they envision for the next 20 years? “It is not that we have achieved our dreams, rather the dreams of others have just begun,” Meyers said. “We love what we do. It just comes down to passion.”
Big O Tires of El Dorado Hills, First Northern Bank, Sacramento Parent Magazine, Sysco, Law Office of Michael Pearce, Attachment & Trauma Treatment Center and Neuro-Feedback Solutions sponsored the Family Fun Day celebration.
For more information about Guiding Hands School visit ghandsschool.com.