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Posted March 21, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Sky's the limit: Local eighth-graders win chance to attend youth summit

Johnathan Foltz, 14, left, of Edinburg, and Kai Gingerich, 15, of Fort Valley, each recently won a scholarship to attend the Self-determination Youth Summit in Norfolk, which took place Monday through Wednesday. The summit, which was held in conjuction with the 23rd Virginia Transition Forum, guides students, teachers and parents through ways to better handle challenges students with disabilities will face throughout their academic careers. Photos by Rich Cooley/Daily

Foltz and Gingerich, both eighth-graders at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School in Woodstock, were the only two students in their school to apply for scholarships to the youth summit.

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By Josette Keelor -- Daily Staff Writer


WOODSTOCK -- The untapped potential of human ability has been the basis of research studies for many years, and perhaps no one has the real answers to the question of how much someone can achieve if truly driven to seek success.

Kai Gingerich and Johnathan Foltz may be just eighth-graders at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School in Woodstock, but they are no strangers to hard work and determination -- especially significant because they are also in the special education program.

Both were recently awarded scholarships to attend the Self-determination Youth Summit, which, in conjunction with the 23rd Virginia Transition Forum, was held this past Monday through Wednesday in Norfolk. The teenagers were looking forward to gaining skills to help them better succeed throughout their academic careers.

Gingerich and Foltz were the only two students from their school to apply for the scholarship to send them to the three-day forum for free -- covering the cost of meals and their stay at the Norfolk Waterside Marriott. Each planned to attend with a parent.

According to their teachers, both boys are determined students who have taken a great interest in their future endeavors.

The truly outstanding thing is that they are eighth-graders, said Jaycee Bova, a special education teacher at Peter Muhlenberg. Most students who planned to attend the forum are in high school, she said. Older students can demonstrate the desire and need for supplemental education, she said, but middle school students do not usually display that sort of commitment to academic success.

The fact that they are special ed students makes their dedication even more admirable.

"I think a lot of students take what they get," she said, which hinders them from believing they can succeed or even wanting more for themselves.

"I applied because I thought it'd be interesting to find out what this whole thing would be about -- this whole college thing -- and what they'd teach me about it," said Foltz, 14, of Edinburg. He was interested in learning about what different colleges would expect of him and what he will have to do once arriving on campus.

"I wanted to learn more about my disability," Gingerich, 15, of Fort Valley, said, believing the summit would "help me out from middle school to high school." Gingerich intends to study "green" technologies, and Foltz is interested in pursuing a career in agriculture.

Each boy was required to write an essay detailing why he wanted to attend the summit in order to win the scholarship. Foltz spoke of his involvement with the Future Farmers of America; Gingerich wrote about his interest in wrestling and winning eighth place in the Middle School State Championship. Having already worked out with Central High School's team, Gingerich hopes to make the school team next year.

The Self-determination Youth Summit was combined with the Virginia Transition Forum in order to encourage a younger group of participants to attend. The forum had previously been attracting educators and parents, but, in the last decade, wanted to include students, as well, in the format of the three-day event, according to Bova.

"The point of the forum is to help with their transition process from middle or high school to post-graduate [school]," Bova said.

"Transition is a word that's used in special education," Bova said, and the forum and summit cater mainly to special education students and their parents and teachers. "A big part of this is that it covers self-determination," Bova said, explaining that a large obstacle in the path of special-ed students is that they feel their future is marred or obstructed by their disabilities.

"Knowing yourself, knowing what you need and knowing how to ask for it" is what the summit stresses that students need for their success, Bova said. Continuing education services offer options to students with disabilities, such as extension of time allowed for taking tests or extra help from educators and school faculty. If students know how to talk to administrators and ask for what they need, they are at a much greater advantage to succeeding in their post-graduate careers than they are without that knowledge, she said.

"To be successful in college, these skills are vital," said Jessica Yancey, a special education teacher at Peter Muhlenberg. She and Bova planned to attend the forum along with two other teachers at the school.

The forum is open to the public each year, and participants can opt to go on a day-to-day basis rather than signing up for the entire three days. Much of the conference is geared toward education, Bova said.

To provide as much help as it can, the special education department at Peter Muhlenberg was also planning a field trip to James Madison University in Harrisonburg on Friday for most of the students in the department. The goal of the day was to allow the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade pupils to communicate with college students on a one-on-one basis to better understand how other people with disabilities are finding themselves able to pursue their dreams and goals. The Peter Muhlenberg students planned to also speak with the university's administration to learn what options will be available to them if they choose to pursue a college education.

The experience will "just give them the skills that they need to talk in a college setting," Yancey said.

With the school year preparing to wrap up and eighth-graders at Peter Muhlenberg anticipating their transition into high school, this past week offered them tools to use in building their futures.

As they prepare to work in a global atmosphere, Gingerich and Foltz are already conscious of the greater world beyond their front doors, having traveled abroad with their families. Gingerich traveled to Costa Rica and Panama; Foltz has been to Spain and Australia.

"They came with a lot of background knowledge," Yancey said of the students' experiences in challenging themselves to improve.

"[We] tell them to come [to the forum] with an open mind," Bova says.

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