Finding joy in small victories: Raffle will help Jacob Pace’s DOVE students at SHS visit the beach
By Katie Scarvey
When he was a student at Salisbury High School back in the late 1990s, Jacob Pace and his brother Jeremy used to hang out at lunchtime in a special education classroom.
It’s not something your average worried-about-being-cool high school kid does.
But Pace says that he’s always been drawn to those with disabilities ó and vice versa.
“I have a magnet for them,” he says.
Pace graduated from Salisbury High in 2000 and went on to major in physical education at Catawba College, with plans to become a P.E. teacher.
One of his teachers was Dr. Pat Whitley, who used to take students to do field work with students who had varying levels of disabilities.
Pace enjoyed that experience, but was still planning to be a general P.E. teacher. As he was filling out an application for a job in Rowan County, there was a box to check if he’d had experience with exceptional children.
He didn’t know then how much one click of the mouse would affect his life.
Instead of a P.E. position, he took a job in special education, teaching in a DOVE (Developmental Occupational Vocational Education) classroom, working with children with severe disabilities.
Dr. Windsor Eagle, principal at Salisbury High, knew Pace when he was a student at Salisbury High and had no hesitation in hiring him. He figured that Pace would make a great soccer coach ó and wouldn’t be a bad teacher, either.
Pace surprised Eagle: he didn’t get involved in the soccer program at SHS. But no matter, because he proved to be an exceptional DOVE teacher.
“It really is incredible, the things he does,” Eagle says.
“He treats them like they’re his own. He’s just wonderful with them.”
After the first year, Pace realized that he’d found his calling.
“It’s more rewarding to help these kids than to teach P.E.,” says Pace, who still looks like the college soccer athlete he used to be.
He worked in a DOVE classroom for three years, and then last year left that position to teach adaptive P.E. at different county schools. That experience further confirmed to him that he wanted to come back to his DOVE classroom.
“When he decided to return, we were elated,” Eagle says.
Pace finds joy in his students’ small daily victories.
“I love seeing students reach individual goals,” he says, whether it’s an academic, social or functional goal.
He celebrates when a student learns to tie a shoe, for example, or learns how to locate and purchase an item in a store, or masters shaking hands as a greeting.
Eagle has been impressed by the patience Pace exhibits in his interaction with students.
He recalls watching Pace in the lunch line as he helped an autistic student whose communication skills were not good.
“Jacob was so patient getting him what he wanted, trying to get him to make choices,” Eagle says. “He probably spent two or three minutes making sure that this student got what he wanted to eat.”
The profound affection these students with disabilities have for their young teacher shows on their faces and in their body language.
“They just trust him so much,” Eagle says.
It’s easy to see why. Patient, easy-going, good-humored, kind: all of these describe Pace.
When Samantha Herrera is asked if she likes Mr. Pace, she smiles immediately and says, “Yeah” ó then bursts into peals of laughter while bobbing her head up and down, as if she cannot contain the thought of him.
Pace has the ability, probably honed with experience, to understand what his students are saying, even if to an outsider their diction is garbled.
At a Salisbury High lunch table recently, Pace joked with students from other special education classes who approached him. One came up behind Pace and casually ruffled his hair, then tenderly kissed the top of his head.
One of the things he tries to teach, Pace explains, is the concept of personal space.
Clearly, it’s an ongoing challenge.
Sharon Corpening is a teaching assistant in Pace’s classroom. Her daughter, Nykia Johnson, is a DOVE student.
“He’s just wonderful with the kids,” Corpening says of Pace.
When he left to teach P.E. last year, the students missed him, she says.
Since he started at Salisbury High five years ago, Pace says many things have improved, including the level of interaction between handicapped and non-handicapped students. There’s much more of it these days.
“It’s night and day,” he says.
Monday, Pace’s students were at Woodleaf Lanes to bowl, which is a weekly outing.
Pace stands beside his students as they loft the ball down bumpered lanes or roll the ball down a rack toward the pins.
“Nick, I think you’re next; get ready to bowl,” Pace tells Nicholas, who has autism and is blind. Nicholas has been sitting quietly and rhythmically moving his head. Pace helps him take his turn.
Everything goes smoothly at the bowling alley ó but teaching DOVE students can be unpredictable. One gets the sense that Pace is unflappable, well-equipped physically and temperamentally to handle the unusual situations that inevitably arise.
Pace is used to taking his students on outings around town, but he’s got bigger plans in the works.
He’s taking his students to Wilmington for three days.
The trip is set for Sept. 14-17 and Pace anticipates that eight students, with four adult chaperones, will participate.
“Some of them have never been to the beach,” Pace says.
Corpening says that when her daughter Nykia found out about the trip, she went home and packed a bag, including flip-flops. Now, every morning she gets up and says, “Field trip? Beach?”
The trip may be difficult in some ways, Pace acknowledges, but he’s sure it will be worth it.
“I think this is a marvelous experience he’s undertaking for the kids,” Eagle says.
Pace hasn’t finalized the plans, but he knows that a tour of downtown Wilmington and a visit to the Battleship North Carolina are on the itinerary.
But before the trip, there’s a little matter to take care of, because while the trip was approved by the school board, Pace still has to raise the money to fund it.
His goal is $5,000.
To that end, with a lot of help from Corpening, he’s organized a raffle.
Businesses have been very generous, he says. Dozens have donated, and Outdoor Power Equipment ponied up the grand prize: a $1,200 Traeger grill.
Raffle tickets are $5 each and available in the Salisbury High main office. To get tickets by mail, mail a check (made out to Salisbury High School) to Salisbury High School (attn: Jacob Pace), 500 Lincolnton Rd., Salisbury, NC 28144.
The drawing will be held at 3 p.m. June 8.
For more information, call Jacob Pace at 704-497-3008.