All students sing at Nansemond River

Published 6:42 pm Saturday, December 26, 2015

For a non-verbal teenager, performing in plays and singing in a choral group might not seem to be possibilities.

But at Nansemond River High School, Dr. Joleen Neighbours is making them possible for several of her students, including 17-year-old Maya Cross.

Maya has a chromosomal disorder that has caused developmental delays and has been accompanied by seizures, said her grandmother, Ginger Owen.

Email newsletter signup

“At about 8 months, her pediatrician and her parents decided we needed to have some further tests done because she was not hitting milestones,” Owen said. “For so long, we didn’t know what Maya was capable of and what she was comprehending because she had no way to communicate.”

But Neighbours has been accepting all students into her drama and choral classes at Nansemond River since she began working there. That even includes students who can’t speak — or couldn’t speak, until Neighbours started working with them.

Neighbours recalled a lesson with Maya one time when she suddenly started singing in her own way. She couldn’t pull her phone out fast enough, she said.

Neighbours said she has had similar breakthroughs with several other special education students in her classes. One student who has autism auditioned for district choir. She didn’t make it, but she “scored better than a lot of my other students,” Neighbours said. A student with autism in previous years actually was in district choir.

Maya has been in productions of “Cinderella” and “Alice in Wonderland” at Nansemond River and performed Christmas tunes at the December School Board meeting with a group of students, jingling a bell during one.

Owen said Maya’s family has noticed a vast difference said Maya has been able to participate in the arts.

“The music has been this eye-opening portion of her life,” Owen said. “She’s so social and wants so badly to be accepted on her own terms. Dr. Neighbours just treats Maya like a normally functioning student. When there’s something to be done as a group, Maya’s with them. She blossoms that way, because we all feel better when we’re accepted.”

Neighbours said other students get a lot out of helping Maya and the other special education students.

“They learn how to be part of a community and help one another,” Neighbours said. “You see the best of these students all the way around. It doesn’t matter if they’re better artists if they’re not better people.”

Owen agreed.

“Maya certainly learns from regularly functioning individuals, but she also gives to those same people an empathy they may not have had,” Owen said. “It’s a win-win, really.”

Special education teacher Sandy Newell said her students learn a lot from working with Neighbours.

“They all participate whenever we feel they can get something,” Newell said.

Neighbours said that out of her 100 or so students, about six come from special education. Several others have individualized education plans but are in the general education population ordinarily.

Owen said her family feels blessed by the opportunity for Maya to attend Nansemond River and work with Neighbours.

“Our prayer is for Maya to be surrounded by those people who care about her,” she said. “That’s what we feel like we have in our school. There’s just a lot of ‘right’ going on at that school.”