Much has been written and discussed about the importance of having high expectations for all kids. While many quotes could be used to describe the story of Alex Betz, perhaps the one that hits closest is from George Bernard Shaw: “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”
In May, Alex Betz graduated with honors from Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls, S.D. – something that seemed impossible just a few years ago. With the support, patience and persistence of his family, teachers and AEA staff, Alex is living proof of the importance of high expectations and never settling for the easy road.
Alex was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum, at the end of fourth grade (age 10). Because the Spencer school district offered more specialized programs in upper elementary, Alex transferred from his home school district to Spencer.
His school career was an extremely rough road at times as Alex was described as a very bright young man without many social graces. He often spoke his mind and told teachers, administration and peers that they or the things they were doing were “stupid or dumb.” (This was especially true with homework or anything that he considered unnecessary.) Alex also had trouble with personal space issues, and at times, with authority.
Diane Nelsen, Transition Coordinator with Prairie Lakes AEA, began her journey with the Betz family when Alex was in sixth grade and getting ready to move on to middle school. Transition planning was going to be extremely important to them. In working with David Hoye, an AEA School Social Worker, they learned that Alex was extremely bright and really needed limited supports for learning. After a very tense eighth grade meeting, it was agreed that Alex would use resource room services and Carol Heissel, a Spencer high school special education teacher, become Alex’s case manager.
“Throughout it all, he had wonderful parental support,” Diane said. “His mother, Carma, is one of the truly greatest advocates I have ever known in my 30 years in this field! She was there all the time to remind people of his strengths, to make sure his accommodations were being followed and to advocate for regular education as much as possible!”
The struggles didn’t stop at high school, and Alex made many advances. He continued to excel and demonstrate his wonderful mathematical abilities while in high school but had struggled with many of his other classes, especially those for which he saw no purpose. As his junior year approached, the team began thinking ahead to advanced post secondary planning.
Many at the high school level thought a 4+ program was the only, and best, option for him. However, Alex was determined that he could get a four-year degree in engineering and maybe more! And so the team embarked on this new mission – to find the right post-secondary match for him. During the summer of his junior year, Nelsen spent hours on the computer exploring potential programs and eventually landed on Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls, S.D.
What happened next truly embodies the phrase “going the extra mile” that so many educators demonstrate. That summer, Nelsen traveled to Sioux Falls for a regular doctor visit. While on that trip, she carved out time to visit the college, the program and meet the staff to discuss Alex’s needs.
“I was impressed with their programs and the fact that they had a direct connection to South Dakota State University so if Alex was able, he could go on to a four-year college relatively seamlessly,” Nelsen said. “Transitions had never been easy for Alex so my next big job was to sell it to Alex, who wanted to go right to a university program without any assistance or supports. His parents were very positive about this opportunity and my work with Alex and that made a big difference.”
As Alex entered his senior year, the Prairie Lakes AEA Transition Department was involved in a State Professional Development Grant pilot project that focused equipping students with the skills so they could advocate for their needs and interests. Heissel was one of the teachers involved in this project. Together, they devised a plan to help ease Alex’s transition to college. Supplying him with a flip cam, the family set off for a college visit where he recorded videos, interviewed instructors and really just ran with this project. He used this video to “tell” his high school teachers what his college expectations were and how they could better help him prepare for college.
In May, Alex graduated, with honors, with an associate of science degree in mechanical engineering technology. And because he wants to earn a mechanical engineering degree, he is now taking classes at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D. This type of engineering is in the highest demand across the country.
“Alex wasn’t an easy student to have in classes, and he wasn’t even much fun in the hallways at times,” Diane said. “But we didn’t let those things stop us and I am so grateful we didn’t. I am even more grateful Alex didn’t! I am humbled by mom’s thanks. The point of all of this we joined forces to push with Alex so that he became the best he could be.”
Nelsen received a touching thank-you from Carma about a month before Alex was set to graduate and some of it is included here:
“Thank you seems so meager for all the years of support you have given us with the challenges we have faced with him. He can’t wait to go to the high school and show off pictures & his degree after graduation. He is absolutely giddy about moving to Brookings! How he has matured and accomplished all of this with no support system at college. He had it available but wanted to try without and has been very successful! We are truly blessed!
Feel free to share this e-mail and or the great news with others. These kids will be the ones to run our world soon! We are very thankful for the supports the AEA has given to these kids to succeed and the belief they have shown in them.”