TRINITY — After Grace Falleur arrived for classes at Mitchell High School, she resisted getting out of the car.
Once out, the 14-year-old chanted “bye bye” and skipped away. Rebecca Kohler, Grace’s aide since June, directed her to a room just inside the main office to help prepare her for classes.
She needed a minute — deep breaths and rest, plus a little time for making faces at her reflection in the window — before heading to first period.
As Grace and Kohler crossed the campus, they passed other children with autism, who were picking up a breakfast snack before heading to a self-contained classroom. But Grace, one of more than 60,000 students with disabilities in Tampa Bay public schools, didn’t come to Mitchell for its special needs program.
She was there for Algebra II, art and physics.
Grace has what her therapist describes as unreliable speech, as well as motor skills that she can’t fully control. What she says with her mouth isn’t always what she wants to say, and what her body does often isn’t what she intends it to do.
That doesn’t do justice to what she knows, though, or what she hopes to achieve.
Melissa Musselwhite, director of Pasco County’s student services department, recalled when a team evaluated Grace for placement. The room was filled with people and distractions. Grace swayed and sang about Disney’s cartoon duo Chip and Dale as a math teacher presented a complex problem involving quadratics while others looked on.
Musselwhite herself found it hard to focus. Yet less than a minute after hearing the question, Grace blurted out the correct answer. She had not appeared to be paying attention.
“I have never seen anybody like this before,” Musselwhite said.
So the district enrolled Grace in face-to-face classes at Mitchell High to pursue her academic dreams, which include studying internal medicine at Harvard. It was more than her family expected.
Without the pandemic, it might never have happened.
Across the nation, schools scrambled in the spring to cope with the contagious and deadly coronavirus. They abruptly stopped in-person instruction for what turned out to be months, leaving families and educators to figure out how kids could keep learning.
Worries quickly spiked that the new approaches, mostly online, could leave thousands of students behind academically — particularly those with special needs.
Those concerns didn’t consume the Falleur family. They saw an open window, not a closed door.
For four years, Grace had attended Invictus Academy, a specialty school for nonverbal students with autism. She had learned how to use a spelling board to communicate, in addition to regular courses.
She points to letters on a board held by a facilitator, who repeats each one and recites finished words but does not guide Grace’s hand. It’s a laborious process, which often requires refocusing Grace as she works to control her arm or, sometimes, to get out of a “loop” that distracts her from completion.
Eventually, Grace hopes to get her motor skills sharpened enough to use a computerized tablet, which could “speak” and help with predictive text.
Still, the spelling board, despite its drawbacks, was a huge step forward.
“She was hungry for communication,” said her mother, Angela Falleur. “I knew there was more in there that wasn’t getting out.”
When the pandemic hit, Invictus went remote. While supporting Grace from home, her parents saw more than ever that she needed greater academic challenges.
They didn’t expect much from the public school system. They had tried it before, when Grace was much younger, with little success.
But Pasco schools announced live remote lessons in all subject areas for the fall semester. It sounded like the right combination of more advanced courses with adequate oversight from home.
“I never expected to send her there,” Falleur said. “I feel like because of COVID, they were a lot more open-minded.”
School officials invited Grace in to determine which classes she should take and whether she might do well in person, too.
“That for us was just icing on the cake, that they were willing to have her in class and on campus,” Falleur said.
Grace, with spelling board assistance from her mom, said, “I think they were willing to take a risk because of my teachers in Invictus in the meetings telling them I was smart.”
The purpose of those meetings had been to demonstrate her abilities to educators, and prove that her words and knowledge were her own. The spelling board method is controversial, with many researchers calling it an unproven technique.
Musselwhite said Grace would have been welcome at any time; the pandemic wasn’t a factor.
Still, she said she was pleased the family saw a special opportunity and jumped at it.
“We problem-solve a handful of unique kids every single year,” Musselwhite said. “People don’t see that on a regular basis, but we do that.”
Initially, Musselwhite said, she envisioned Grace on campus all day. But controlling her motor functions and spelling while also learning is intense and tiring, and “we needed to find a balance.”
They settled on three periods in person, and three online.
Mitchell principal Jessica Schultz made sure that every teacher who would have Grace in a class met her and understood the challenge in advance. She also attended the early evaluations, which the family insisted upon to make sure everyone knew the spelling method wasn’t a trick or hoax.
“Grace is fascinating,” Schultz said one October morning. “She is very intelligent, very capable.”
That’s not always immediately evident.
Sitting in a recent algebra class, Grace appeared to stare blankly as teacher Jessi Struble demonstrated uses of linear equations in graphing. While other students took notes and worked on practice problems, Grace took a pencil from Kohler, her aide, and doodled on a piece of paper. The aim, Kohler explained, was to keep Grace’s body occupied, so it didn’t distract her or others from the lesson.
Struble had no concerns.
“Never have I been able to see a student do math in her head so quick,” she said. “I can ask her a process, and she can explain the procedures. That tells me she understands it.”
The conversations occur outside class time, so they can focus without worrying about others. It’s taken some time to work out a system, having never done this before, Struble acknowledged. But everything seems to be falling into place.
“She’s just like any other student,” the teacher said. “She wants to do great. She’s upset when she doesn’t.”
Art teacher Justin Fenton praised Grace’s artwork as “beautiful” and said she’s fully involved in his course.
He noted that Grace created and presented a video about herself and her dreams to her new classmates, so they can understand her motivations and struggles.
”Having autism doesn’t mean I don’t have the same goals as you,” the video says, Grace’s words appearing in white letters against a black background. “It means that I am not able to talk and my body doesn’t behave like I want it to.”
She likes “music, creating movies, art and meeting new people,” the video said.
Sharing her story was an act of “out and out bravery,” Fenton said.
“Having Grace in class is awesome,” he said. “It has changed my outlook on working with students on the autism spectrum entirely.”
For so long, Grace said, people thought her physical barriers translated into intellectual ones.
“I knew I was smarter than anyone knew,” she said using her spelling board.
Now she’s getting the academic work she wanted, and more. She loves being with other teens, even though they don’t interact much.
“The students talk to each other, so I can learn to socialize,” she said.
Dana Johnson, Grace’s occupational therapist and founder of Invictus Academy, called her a “trailblazer.” If Grace can succeed, she said, others like her can benefit from the experiences.
“There is nothing wrong with Grace’s brain,” Johnson said. “She completely understands.”
Learning how to use the spelling board takes time and training, for students and support professionals, she said. It requires intense focus for the student to point to the correct letters, which isn’t an easy process, and the patient encouragement of the facilitator.
The process leaves itself open to criticism and controversy, particularly that the person using the board isn’t actually the one speaking.
The American Speech Language Hearing Association has discouraged the use of facilitated communication, saying it lacks scientific validity.
“While we want individuals to be able to communicate in any way that works for them, we also want to be very careful,” said Marie Ireland, vice president for speech language pathology practice with the organization.
Facilitators might have the best intentions, Ireland said. But in many cases, it has been documented that the communication is interfered with or leading. If the results are not consistent among different helpers, she suggested, that should be a red flag.
Using her spelling board, Grace indicated she doesn’t want to engender that perception. Her mom was equally adamant that everyone understand that Grace is doing her own work.
“My child is smarter than me and knows things I do not know,” Falleur said. “I couldn’t facilitate and give her words or answers for physics or algebra if I tried. You can check my school transcripts on that one.”
District educators didn’t take the family’s word for it, though.
Musselwhite said they used in-person assessments and in-depth questioning by teachers, as well as reviewing materials that people holding the spelling board for Grace did not know about. They’ve been convinced.
“I definitely think she is the real deal,” said Glennda McCallister, a student services supervisor who serves as the district liaison to the family.
So, too, do the many others who surround Grace, including the coaches at Orange Theory, where she exercises to help make brain-body connections.
The pastors at Idlewild Baptist Church also see something special in Grace. She grew up there, where her grandmother is a ministry assistant.
Pastor Reno Zunz recalled one Christmas when Grace stepped forward to sing a solo.
“I was just sitting there with my jaw hitting the floor,” Zunz said. Over the years knowing Grace, he said, he’s learned “there’s more to people than meets the eye.”
If there’s any lesson that Grace wants to come from her experiences in school and society, it’s that one. She’s gotten to a point where people can see beyond her physical limitations. She wants the same for others like her.
Her T-shirt emphasized her message: “Freedom of speech isn’t just for the speaking.”
She’s already got people thinking differently.
Schultz, the principal, recalled another student with autism who long ago left Mitchell.
“Who’s to say that kid didn’t have the same ability as Grace?” she mused. “It’s kind of sad when you think about the potential we might have missed.”
Musselwhite, who has worked with students with autism for two decades, said Grace prompted her to reflect on her own teaching.
“Did I miss something?” she wondered.
As one result, she said, the district is working on training for its therapists, so they look for more ways to help children with communication.
Grace’s mom worked on a master’s degree in special education to help Grace and her three siblings, one of whom also is a speller. She said she’s mostly sorry it took so long to get to this point, but it’s critical to helping her daughter toward independence, or at least autonomy.
“Employability is important. Literacy is important,” Falleur said. “We’re not going to outlive them.”
Grace, whose first quarter report card was filled with mostly A’s, said she’s grateful to have the chance to use the spelling board and attend school for the education she wants.
“Waiting for my parents to find this was hella hard,” she said, with her mom holding the board. “They almost gave up, but when we found this, my life changed for the better.”