Arlington special-needs school progresses, just like its students

ARLINGTON -- Ten years ago, Kim Marshall and Jean Jewell took their hopes for their daughters and, with the help of others, fashioned them into a school.

They wanted a place where students with Down syndrome, like Jewell's daughter Kristin and Marshall's daughter Lindsey, could get the attention they needed to be successful.

As their girls grew, so did Green Oaks School, the private Christian academy they co-founded. It went from four students that first year to 44 today. Students, ages 7 to 48, have Down syndrome or similar developmental delays.

Now, the women are on their way to fulfilling new dreams.

A benefactor recently gave the school use of a nearby house, and they'll soon begin using it as a training site for life skills lessons like cooking meals and washing clothes. Eventually, they hope to add a "living community" with homes or apartments where some students could live independently.

They don't have a timeline, but the opportunities the donated house will provide are a great jumping-off point, the women said.

"It was a gift from God, literally," said Marshall, the school's executive director. "We have found all along that if we're diligent and conscientious that things work out for us. ... God provides."

Marshall, Jewell and Terry Dunn, who has since left, started Green Oaks in 2000.

Marshall and Jewell's children, then ages 11 and 13, were falling behind as their classmates moved on to subjects like algebra. The women wanted to focus on academics that the girls would realistically use in life.

It wasn't that they were battling the public school system, they said; they just thought there might a better way.

Not for everyone

Green Oaks started in a portable building provided by St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. In fall 2002, the school moved into a 5,200-square-foot former day care at 5508 Chaperito Trail in west Arlington. It has three classrooms, where students are loosely grouped by age and ability.

At the center of the school is a lunchroom with bright red lockers around the outside. The walls are decorated with student artwork hanging on bulletin boards and bright murals of friendly looking elephants and giraffes.

In addition to academics, students participate in exercise, music, art, and speech and occupational therapy programs.

At first, most students had attended public schools, and their parents were ready to try something different. Now enrollees include children who have been home-schooled or are just starting school. Students come from all over Tarrant County and beyond, including Cleburne, Weatherford and Duncanville.

Jewell, director of business administration, said parents know that their children are "in an environment where we understand what their needs are. We teach to their needs, and we have high expectations."

Tuition is $8,000 a year. Jewell said that's a little over half of the school's cost per student. So, the school's leaders also spend a lot of time raising money.

With many parents of children with Down syndrome striving for inclusion in public school classrooms, Jewell and Marshall are careful to say that their approach isn't for everyone. But it is right for them.

Jan Farrington of Fort Worth enrolled her daughter Bryn in Green Oaks when Bryn was 13. Farrington said she couldn't see a public middle school working out well for her daughter. Six years later, she's still glad she made the switch. She recalls a recent morning when she gave Bryn the choice of sleeping in or getting up for school.

"She said, 'I love going to my school,' and how many 19-year-olds can you get to wake up at 7 a.m. ... and say that?" Farrington said. "And she means that. She really loves going there. She's learning and growing."

Kristin, Jewell's now 20-year-old daughter, describes the school's unique environment simply: Green Oaks is where she has her friends and her life.

New goals

Green Oaks has started expanding into adult programs in response to a need for more options in the community, Marshall said. In 2009, it added Green Oaks Adult Learning, or GOAL. The 13 adults enrolled in GOAL attend classes at nearby Lake Arlington Baptist Church.

They get reading and math instruction and learn life skills like cooking and personal finances. They also attend job assignments, like working at the Arlington Public Library. The addition of the training house this spring will expand what GOAL can offer students.

Ultimately, school leaders want a campus that includes housing and a business where residents could work. They look to Down Home Ranch, a community near Austin started by parents of a girl with Down syndrome, as an example of what can be achieved. Residents there operate greenhouses and sell Easter lilies each spring.

But Marshall, Jewell and board Chairman Chuck Crook say they're not rushing into anything.

Crook said only God can decide when the time is right for the residential plan to fall into place.

"I couldn't even venture a guess," he said. "But I do trust that God is going to show us how to do it and when to do it."

TRACI SHURLEY, 817-390-7641