When Pedro Garcia’s name was called at Grand Prairie High School’s last senior meeting, a theater of more than 600 seniors went wild with joy.
Garcia, who has Down’s Syndrome, became the first student with a disability to be named Mr. Grand Prairie High School by his peers. It’s a high honor at the school, part of a tradition in which sixteen outstanding boys and girls are nominated to the so-called “GEEP court” and two are named Mr. and Ms. Grand Prairie High School by a vote of their classmates.
Watching remotely from her phone, tears streamed down Melody Bradley’s face.
As a special education teacher, it felt she’d been waiting for a moment like this her entire career: when everyone else saw students with disabilities the way she did – as amazing kids with so much to offer. The “total package,” as she liked to think.
Becoming a leader
For Bradley, it was also a bittersweet moment.
This fall, she’ll be taking on a new role as special education coordinator for the entire campus, which means she’ll be leading adults instead of working directly with students like Garcia in the classroom.
It’s not something Bradley thought she ever wanted.
The Holdsworth experience gave me my voice and my drive back.
Her mindset began to shift two years ago when her principal, Laigha Boyle, invited her to be part of The Holdsworth Center’s Campus Leadership Program. Boyle saw potential in Bradley that she herself didn’t – not yet.
After two years in the program learning how to be a better leader, to empower others and to create change, Bradley began to believe she could do it. That she should do it.
“If I don’t do my part, who will?” Bradley said. “Honestly, I probably cried more this year and worked longer hours than I have in my whole career. But the Holdsworth experience gave me my voice and my drive back. I can’t tap out and just go through the motions. Kids like Pedro deserve so much better.”
Standing up for kids
For Bradley, the journey toward this beautiful moment with Garcia began more than two decades ago, when she took her first job in special education in Arkansas.
She taught three students with profound disabilities. The principal expected them to stay in the classroom; they were not allowed to come to school assemblies or eat in the cafeteria.
Bradley received her first write-up for refusing to keep them hidden away in the classroom.
“How am I supposed to show my students how to behave if they are not allowed to be with others?” Bradley said. “The principal viewed my kids as less than. I had a heck of a year, but I fought. I took them out anyway.”
According to Boyle, the fiery spirit that earned Bradley a write-up is part of what makes her a natural leader.
“She is a no-nonsense kind of person who stands up for what she thinks is right. I respect that quality in her,” Boyle said. “In her previous schools, no one ever gave her a chance to shine. All I had to do was step out of the way and let her go.”
Advocating full inclusion
Over the years, Bradley worked for many school administrators who saw her students through the same lens as her first principal.
Boyle wasn’t like that.
“Laigha has not muted me, closed her door to me or stopped me from doing what I thought was right,” Bradley said. “It’s nice to feel appreciated by her, but the real reward is the things we have been able to do for our kids.”
Grand Prairie High School practices full inclusion whenever possible. Even those with severe disabilities learn, eat and graduate alongside their peers.
Bradley and Boyle believe full inclusion not only benefits students with disabilities, it benefits all students.
Take Pedro Garcia. His friendship and buoyant spirit and smile has been a gift to everyone. Had he not been included in the center of student life, his peers wouldn’t have had the chance to get to know him.
And they never would have elected him Mr. Grand Prairie High School.
Even the students who were up for the honor themselves actively campaigned for Garcia to win, Boyle said. She’d never seen the students cheer more loudly than when his name was called.
“To see an entire campus come together like that – it gives me hope for tomorrow,” Boyle said.
Growing up near Little Rock, Arkansas, Bradley and her sister were raised by a strong-minded single mother who worked in public education as an administrator.
School was Bradley’s village. Kind teachers believed in her and pushed her toward excellence. When she began working with special education students while still in college, she knew she’d found her calling.
“It was magical, I loved it,” Bradley recalled. “I’ve changed a catheter tube, helped students through seizures – none of it ever freaked me out.”
Teachers make the magic happen and the rest of us are here to support them. We have to look at leadership that way.
Over the years, she became frustrated at the low expectations people had for her kids.
“All of us have deficits and my students are no different,” Bradley said. “But we must equip them with the skills they need to thrive and allow them to be as independent as possible.”
Often, it was the parents who slowed progress because they couldn’t bear to see their children struggle and fail.
Bradley’s gentle question for parents was this: “What’s going to happen when you are not here? In the long-term, what’s most important for your child to learn?”
Empowering students and teachers
Now that she’s taking on a leadership role with more influence, Bradley is brimming with plans.
One big change? Preparing students with disabilities to take the lead on special meetings that decide their educational destiny. She wants to hear them express their own goals and desires and ask for the support they need.
“Once they are informed and empowered, I believe they will show up differently in the classroom,” Bradley said.
She also wants to change the way adults talk about disability so that kids’ belief in themselves isn’t deflated by language focused on their deficits instead of their gifts.
In addition to empowering students, Bradley wants to empower teachers. She wants to give them latitude to try new things, and to come up with their own creative solutions instead of Bradley doing all the problem solving.
“Teachers make the magic happen and the rest of us are here to support them. We have to look at leadership that way,” Bradley said. “It’s not about who is in charge. It is about us working together and taking the best ideas to create the best outcome for kids.”