Credit: Contributed

Harlem resident Chantel Carter knows the setbacks, hard work and dedication it takes having a child with special needs. Joseph Graham, 17, had behavioral problems that required additional support, but during his formative years he lacked stability in school.

“He was often transferred out of schools because they were not equipped to deal with his needs or couldn’t deal with his needs,” stated Carter. “He was not able to form relationships with his peers or with teachers. Joseph even missed out on kindergarten graduation because he was often transferred to different schools.”

Even though Graham had behavioral issues, he was always advanced academically. Carter struggled with the Board of Education in trying to find a school that would accommodate Graham’s needs.

“A lot of the public school system, when they place kids in a special education class, [they] are not always equipped when dealing with a classroom of 15 to 20 students,” said Carter. “They are either not equipped to meet the child’s need on an individual level or are not challenging them academically.”

Carter stated that the BOE tried their best to accommodate Graham’s needs by sending him to different school, but “they often do not realize the trauma it has on the child.” 

Graham was finally placed in the Gillen Brewer School. “He got into that school on a Nickerson Letter, that is when the BOE is not able to meet your child’s need,” said Carter. “They will then award the Nickerson Letter, which is a private school funding paid for by the BOE.”

The Gillen Brewer School, located on East 92 Street, had the support Graham needed. The school had teachers that specialized in the areas and who were able to provide services on the premises to support Graham. He was finally able to form relationships with peers.

Now in his senior year at Legacy High School, Graham is doing well academically and socially. “When Joseph found out he was a special education student, I let him know that your situation does not define who you are and who you can become,” said Carter. “Look what you’re doing academically and continue to do that.”

Added Carter, “I started looking for programs outside of a confined setting that was more mainstream so that he could develop relationships there. I placed him with the Boys’ Club of New York, but most importantly he got accepted into the Schomburg Center as a junior scholar. They teach you about your African-American heritage, and Joseph goes to a private school, which is predominately white. I wanted him to know more about his culture and build his self-esteem.

“There, he learned public speaking skills and social advocacy in dealing with the social issues that impact not only him but also his society. He grew academically, started tutoring other children and became more accepting of who he was as a person.”

Graham was accepted out of 50 students to the Carleton Liberal Arts program at Carleton College located in Minnesota. He was also recently entered into the National Society of High School Scholars, an academic honor for high school students who maintain a grade point average of 90 percent or better.

“I feel honored because I was nominated into it by my guidance counselor,” stated Graham. “Being noticed for my academic skills is a privilege. I’m pretty happy about it.”

In April, Graham was called by the Gillen Brewer School to be an honoree at their fundraising event, where he spoke to incoming students and parents about his accomplishments and how the school influenced him. “It was a great thing for them to see,” said Carter. “They got to visualize that there is a possibility. When you are a parent to a child with special needs, you often understand what statistics are like for your child and don’t really see what the positive outcome can be.

“He received a standing ovation and it was a positive experience for him because many parents came up to him and said he was a blessing. He gave them hope.”

Carter, who could not be more proud of her son and his accomplishments, believes that the African-American community “needs to utilize the services given to us in order to better our children. As a parent, you are your child’s best advocate.”

Graham’s advice to students in a special education program or entering one is to “push yourself and do not rely on teachers. Try to do things on your own. If you feel as if the pace of the classroom is slow, get involved in other things outside of the school setting to be exposed and to help yourself.”

Graham is interested in engineering and is looking into attending either UCLA or University of Southern California, where he can follow in his uncle’s footsteps.