Overcoming adversity: Graduating seniors beat the odds to succeed

By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers

Some of the most important lessons learned by Dearborn and Dearborn Heights graduating seniors in the class of 2011 were not found in their textbooks.

With the help of their teachers, families and friends, some learned that not only are they not defined or limited by their learning disabilities and illnesses, but that “can’t is not an option.”


Edsel Ford High School senior Brandon Thomas has a motor skill disorder that makes him eligible for extra time to complete timed tasked like tests.

Inspiration from nature
Edsel Ford High School’s Brandon Thomas struggled early in elementary school. Some of his earlier teachers believed he either wasn’t trying hard enough or wasn’t attentive enough in class.

However, Thomas’ second-grade teacher suggested he might benefit from the teacher consultant program that enables special accommodations for a student’s weaknesses and tries to help.

“She was able to see how smart I was,” Thomas said. “I actually had a reading level above everyone and I just wasn’t getting enough time to finish the assignments. I just needed more time. I needed more guidance.”

Thomas’ actual condition never has been diagnosed accurately, but the closest assessment has been a fine motor skill disorder. To help accommodate him, teachers give him more time to take tests and complete timed assignments.

“I’m fine with perception, vision, everything else,” Thomas said. “The only thing I have trouble with is getting it on the paper. I process everything fine. I’ve got a 4.0 (grade point average). Just when it comes down to those long papers and those long tests and all that writing, with my motor skills I have to write and erase, and it’s so sloppy. And with cursive and stuff, I need a bit more time with that.”

His strongest subjects are history, language arts, science and some math classes. He prefers subjects he can analyze.

“With geometry it’s easy, because it’s just postulates,” Thomas said. “It’s basically facts and logic and deduction.”

He also likes learning about history, because “the big thing in history is the patterns.” He especially likes learning about World War II and Japanese, German and American history.

Another thing separating Thomas from other students was that he never wanted to miss class because he didn’t want to miss lectures.

He plans to attend Henry Ford Community College for a year or two to get prerequisites out of the way before transferring to the University of Michigan-Dearborn or Wayne State University. He is attracted to UM-D’s Environmental Interpretative Center, whose programs he enjoyed attending when he was younger.

Beyond college, Thomas sees himself as a health inspector or a park ranger. He would like to be in a job where he can work outside and take samples of things.


Annapolis High School senior Michael Toney, who has cerebral palsy, walks with the aid of two crutches.

Standing strong
Michael Toney, an Annapolis High School senior, describes himself as smart and says he tries his best at whatever he does and tries to make the best of any situation.

He has two younger sisters and a younger brother. Toney also has cerebral palsy, and uses forearm crutches to walk

Medical experts say people with cerebral palsy have impaired muscle power and coordination due to a brain injury or trauma that may have occurred at or before birth. It occurs most often in premature babies and is caused less often by oxygen deprivation or injury at birth.

Because Toney is unable to climb stairs at school, his classes are all held on the ground floor. Teachers who otherwise might be located on an upper floor are relocated to the ground floor for the classes he is in, which causes strain among students who don’t understand the reasons behind the moves. His favorite classes are electives, especially graphic design classes in which he makes things. Toney recently printed a graphic design onto a mirror, and now he’s preparing to print a graphic design onto a T-shirt.

Toney said he usually has a good attitude about his disability.

“The only thing that really makes me mad is when I’ll tell people what’s wrong (about his cerebral palsy), and then when the same people keep repeatedly asking me what’s wrong, then I get a little frustrated. So if I get repeatedly asked, that makes me mad.”

He said he would like to go to college, get a good job and be successful in life.

Toney advises other students with disabilities to “not hold back.”

“You can always do what you set your mind to do,” he said. “There’s nothing you can’t do. If you think you can do it, you can do it.”


Annapolis High School senior Nick Marchwinski has severe allergies and asthma, which caused him to miss a lot of school his freshman and sophomore years and fall behind academically.

Breathing a sigh of relief
Nick Marchwinski of Annapolis enjoys math and social studies and would like to become a history teacher. He has been influenced positively by the oral history of his grandfather, who served in the Pacific during World War II, and by his enthusiastic history teacher, Kurt Radwanski.

In addition to being a big brother to six younger sisters, he is the only one of his siblings with serious asthma and allergy issues.

Marchwinski’s asthma and allergies have caused him to miss a lot of school, especially during his freshman and sophomore years.

“When I get sick, when the pollen outside gets me really wheezy, and I’m constantly coughing,” he said. “I get that really bad, barking cough and I can’t come to school with it.”

His asthma has stopped him from some things, he said, like playing basketball as a sophomore. This year he was busy making up classes he missed because of illness and didn’t have the time to join a basketball team.

He wishes people understood how bad asthma can be. During an acute attack, he said, he gets dizzy and can’t think, see or breathe.

“Sometimes I have nights where I wake up and I can barely breathe,” Marchwinski said. “I have to go to the shower, where the heat steam is, and breathe.”

To alleviate his symptoms he has had to take a steroidal inhaler every two hours; he also carries a rescue inhaler. He has a breathing treatment machine he must use every four hours if the asthma gets bad.

Although Marchwinski’s closest friends have been supportive, his peers don’t always understand what he is going through.

Marchwinski hopes that when he is a teacher someday, he will be better able to relate to kids like him who face health challenges.

“I can help motivate them,” he said.

Photos by Sue Suchyta


Annapolis High School senior Jalen Askew, who is believed to have an undiagnosed learning disability, is now on target to graduate thanks to the school’s Credit Recovery Program, which combines after-school counseling and online learning opportunities.

Success earns class credit
Jalen Askew of Annapolis enjoys sports and working out. He has set a goal to graduate high school and “make his parents proud.”

Askew has not been diagnosed technically with a learning disability, but in recognition of his learning needs, has been enrolled in the school’s Credit Recovery Program, which combines after-school tutoring with online learning, has helped him make up courses he needed to retake. The program’s class lectures are followed by practice homework; if a student does well, they then can take a quiz.

“My first year (of school) I wasn’t really ‘caring,’” Askew said. “I kind of thought, ‘Oh, it’s high school, I’m going to do good anyway.’ But the reality was that I wasn’t doing good at all.

“I shouldn’t even be graduating right now. Any student that would have been in my situation probably would have given up, would have dropped out or just not even tried.”

Askew appreciates the counselors who have encouraged him and teachers who have given him extra help after school. He started applying himself to pass his classes, and said he always knew in his head he could do it if he set his mind to it.

“My parents preach to me every day, you can do anything you want to do,” Askew said. He said online learning has helped by providing fewer distractions and by isolating him from others in order to focus on the person teaching the lesson online.

Next fall he would like to enroll in the massage therapy program at Everest Institute. “My father tells me all the time you can do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it,” Askew said.

He advises classmates in his position that “it’s never too late.”

“The word ‘can’t’ is not an option at all,” Askew said. “Hard work, dedication and if you want it bad enough you can do it. I’ve lived by that for the last couple years now.”