By Jeffrey S. Solochek
TRINITY, Fla. (AP) — Evan Wolin sat patiently in his slightly oversized cap and knee-length black gown, waiting his turn.
One by one, the teacher called his classmates to the stage. Then, finally, she read his name.
Evan burst from his seat, sped to the front and grabbed his diploma, a huge smile eclipsing his face. He thrust the paper into the air with an extra arm pump, as his mom, Jessica, tried not to cry while she captured it all on her phone.
He was so ready for kindergarten.
Nearly three years ago, when Evan first entered Longleaf Elementary's preschool program for children with developmental delays, few predicted that this day would come.
At 2 1/2 years old, he had barely begun walking, hadn't started talking and coped daily with many medical problems stemming from being born a micropreemie.
"On paper, his medical diagnosis had us thinking, 'Oh, my,' " recalled school speech pathologist Janice Whittaker.
Since he still sometimes used a feeding tube, some of the staff at Longleaf thought Evan might be better suited for a program at Cotee River Elementary, which had dedicated nurses on staff. But his mom, a special-education teacher, and dad, a school administrator, did not want their son in a medical unit.
"I knew developmentally I wanted him in the area school. I knew that he had more in him," Jessica Wolin said. "Although he wasn't speaking, although he wasn't eating, I knew he was very bright. . I always wanted him to be challenged."
Teacher Heather Goldstein, also a neighbor of the Wolins who remembered seeing Evan come home as an infant "with every tube connected to him," committed to making her classroom work for his needs.
"As soon as they told me, I went right online to research everything," she said. "I thought, if he is coming I want to make sure I have everything in place."
Before he arrived, Goldstein reorganized the furniture in her book- and toy-filled classroom to make it easier for Evan to navigate. She continued to learn about his medical demands and prepare for his academic requirements, communicating with his family to keep them informed on daily activities.
Jessica Wolin praised Goldstein's dedication, saying the teacher went above and beyond to make Evan feel at home in school and to help ensure his success. District special-education prekindergarten coordinator Kelli Boles never doubted it.
Goldstein, Boles said, exemplifies what the school district wants from its teachers in the program, which is federally funded and guaranteed to all eligible children with special needs ages 3 to 5. When other educators need training or classroom ideas, Boles sends them to Goldstein.
"She knows where the kids are, what they need to work on," Boles said. "She's the model of what I would like to see for all classrooms."
Goldstein's overriding philosophy is simple: Treat all kids like typical kids, set high expectations and then help them get there. She's taught her special-needs preschoolers to read and write that way, not to mention how to speak and socialize.
During a recent class day, Goldstein had Evan working with pattern blocks, where he would match colored plastic shapes to a design on a paper. She had him count yellow hexagons to figure out how many he needed to complete the pattern. Then she turned to another set of pieces.
"What do we call the blue?" she asked. "We used to call them diamonds, but now that you're going to kindergarten we have to call them ..."
"Rom," Evan said, looking up at Goldstein for affirmation.
"Rhombus," she said, completing the word.
"I love rhombus," Evan said cheerfully, placing them on the pattern and then sweeping them all away to start again. "I did it!"
"What do you get to do now?" Goldstein asked.
"Build a tower!" Evan shouted. He started to stack pieces, knock them down and repeat.
Goldstein refuses to take full credit for Evan's progress. Parents must participate actively, she said, and the child must be determined, too, in order for them all to find success.
That collaboration shone through for Evan, she said. "He amazes me every year."
His mom feels much the same.
When he was born at 24 weeks weighing 1.5 pounds, some people wondered whether he would even survive. She kept the faith through illnesses and surgeries for short-bowel syndrome, months in the hospital, feeding tubes, therapists.
Would he walk? Would he talk? Would he eat?
Now he races around at breakneck speed, bouncing from his pet hamster to his stash of toy cars, climbing on furniture and jabbering nonstop. He loves bacon and pancakes (and syrup and eggs), and though he's still small for his age, he loves to play with as much abandon as any 5-year-old.
In April, he was named Longleaf's pre-K student of the month.
Program coordinator Boles had nothing but good to say about Evan's progress, which includes his move to a traditional kindergarten class in the fall.
"He is like the poster child of why we do this, because early intervention works," she said, expressing hope that more families would enroll their eligible children in the classes.
Jessica Wolin, meanwhile, looks forward to Evan's next adventure. Sure, she's nervous about kindergarten, just like she was about so many other steps in her son's life.
But "he's done all those things. I want to be surprised by him. I want to see the next surprise."