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Ridge Park Charter Teachers Help Student Navigate Life

When Valentino arrived at Ridge Park Charter Academy, he didn’t talk much, and notes from his previous school indicated that he struggled to make friends.

With help from Ridge Park teachers – particularly English Learner Teacher Beth Graham and Special Education Teacher Christina Spencer – Valentino now helps at the school store county money, cheers for teammates on the cross country team, and had a successful job interview at a nursing home. Perhaps most importantly, he displays confidence, friendliness, and comfort when interacting with others.

Christina Spencer and Beth Graham
Christina Spencer, left, and Beth Graham

“He went from being very withdrawn, not talking, wouldn’t look at you to coming and telling jokes and laughing,” Spencer said. “He is somebody who makes my day better because of the changes that I see.”

Valentino is an eighth-grade English Language Learner (ELL) and has a disability, and his previous school began the process of forming an Individualized Education Program for him but it fell through in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He came to Ridge Park and struggled in testing his reading level, but Graham and Spencer sensed that there was more to the problem. With high school on the horizon and the fact that he will be taking public busing, the solution became clear – reinforce Valentino’s basic life skills.

Christina Spencer, Valentino, and Beth Graham
Christina Spencer, eighth grader Valentino, and Beth Graham

Because Valentino didn’t have an Individualized Education Program (IEP), he spent all his time with Graham and Spencer, limiting his interactions with others. The goals at first were for Valentino to make basic conversation with adults and his peers, telling them good morning, asking how they are doing, and shaking hands. Now, Valentino has progressed to where he is helping wraps things up after sporting events and initiating the interaction with others.

Christina Spencer and Valentino working on a money problem.
Christina Spencer and Valentino work on a money problem

“He was talking to me, but I could not get him for the life of me to talk much to other staff people,” said Graham, who is in her 17th year at Ridge Park. “He didn’t have the comfort level. Whereas this year, I’ll say, ‘OK, I want you to go find this person. They're in room 22, and you're gonna ask them this question,’ and he can do it. I'm still amazed by that because last year, he just would not talk to people. It took months to get him to really talk to me at first, whereas now, he'll just go talk to people.”

Christina Spencer and Valentino working on the alphabet.
Christina Spencer and Valentino work on the alphabet

When the time came for Valentino’s job interview at a nursing home serving food, Graham and Spencer made sure he was ready, and sure enough, he got an offer.

“Just to see him do that and get offered a job, it was awesome,” Graham said. “That’s something that I don't think I'll ever forget.”

Beth Graham and Valentino going over some homework.
Beth Graham and Valentino go over some homework
As Valentino prepares to enroll in high school, Graham and Spencer are making sure he has all he needs. Because of the attention and care he received; he has the tools to be successful at his new school.

“I always lead with my heart. I think my love for students and my determination in seeing them succeed kind of pushes me towards all the things that I do for them,” Spencer said.

Valentino wearing a mask over his eyes.
Valentino is set to enter high school next year after his time at Ridge Park

Keep up the excellent work, Ms. Graham and Ms. Spencer!
About Ridge Park Charter Academy
Ridge Park Charter Academy is a tuition-free, public charter school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, serving students in Young 5s through eighth grade. It is part of the National Heritage Academies network, which includes more than 100 tuition-free, public charter schools serving more than 65,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade across nine states. For more information, visit

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