Overcoming Obstacles

Posted on Apr 12, 2021 by Mark Muehl - Quality Education

Steve Wilhoff knew his son, Nathan, would need some extra help. That’s why he chose St. John Emmanuel Lutheran School.

“Nathan was born three and a half months premature and had a lot of issues,” Steve explained. “He's deaf in one ear, suffers 20 percent hearing loss in the other, has mild cerebral palsy, and is developmentally delayed.” We weren't sure he'd ever be able to keep up in school or how far he'd fall behind.”

“But St. John's just went out of their way to make it possible for him to keep up. They developed Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) in collaboration with the East Allen County School System. Together they made a plan that really worked for Nathan.”

“Above and beyond that, the teachers at St. John Emmanuel – I mean, just the attitude of the teachers, that they would go above and beyond. That really helped us, too.”

Steve says the Indiana Choice Scholarship program was essential to finding the best school for Nathan.

“There's no way we could have done this on our own. I'm self-employed. I made a choice to stay home and work from my home,” Steve said. “And there's really no way I could afford to send him to a school like that without some sort of help. And that voucher program made it possible for me. I didn't want to subject him to a situation where he had to keep up with the curriculum. I needed a school that was willing to adapt to his needs and make sure that he was learning where he was at. School choice allowed that to happen for Nathan at St. John Emmanuel.”

Steve said there’s a common misperception that only public schools would be suitable for students like Nathan. To the contrary, the Wilhoffs found their local Lutheran school was well equipped to help Nathan succeed.

“From an outside point of view it would be easy to make assumptions. But what you have to understand is the attitude of the teachers who are providing the services,” Steve said. “At a faith-based school, teacher attitude isn't established by an organization so much as it is by a belief system. That makes a major difference. And that's what we found. These people became emotionally and personally invested in making sure that Nathan had everything he needed to succeed. Because of the small class sizes of the school, it was more of a close community.”

Nathan thrived socially at St. John Emmanuel, as well.

“My son can be a difficult fellow to get along with,” Steve said. “I mean, he's pretty demanding. He's pretty opinionated, and he's — well, socially awkward sometimes. But the entire school made allowances. It was because of the culture of the school. Ultimately, the culture had more of an effect on his ability to learn than the curriculum.”

“I have never seen a child treated differently for being outside of the majority. I just haven't seen that. My son's a classic example. If you have a child with special needs, watch how they're treated. That's the real test. If we were going to experience prejudice or bigotry due to ability, that’s where we’d see it. We never experienced that with Nathan. We just didn't see any of that with him.”

“Teachers took time with him, never treating his education like some sort of automated assembly line,” Steve said. “Coursework was surprisingly individualized. That the teachers would take that kind of time for one kid is just incredible. We just didn’t expect that. My wife and I would leave every IEP meeting almost in tears, just overwhelmed by the positive attention he got.”

When asked if parents are best qualified to choose the schools their children attend, Steve just laughed.

“Anyone who believes that parents can’t or shouldn’t be allowed to choose their kids’ education are hanging around the wrong people and looking at the wrong statistics, because the vast majority of parents are terribly, terribly concerned about the education of their children and their overall welfare.”

“It would be tragic for parents in my situation if there wasn’t a program that allowed them to make educational choices — choices like the one I made for my son. If an opportunity exists, it's absolutely wrong for that child not to have access to that opportunity,” Steve said. “Indiana’s voucher program allows for choice. If we really want to look out for the best interest of children, then there's just no other way. This program has to continue. It just has to.”