Being misunderstood is sometimes a blessing in disguise. Student Eric Holmes knows all about that.
“He ended up at ABS West for being defiant, disrespectful to his peers and teachers, and because of his anger and not knowing how to express it or control it,” said his mother, Lakayana Holmes.
The Aldine Independent School District rising senior was referred to Harris County Department of Education’s Academic and Behavior School West during the spring 2022 semester for ADHD, disciplinary issues, and physical aggression. ABS West is one of two specialized HCDE schools that provide an educational environment for students identified as having severe behavioral and emotional difficulties and/or developmental disabilities.
At his home school in Aldine ISD, his mother says Eric struggled academically and socially.
“We decided that going to ABS West would be the best thing for Eric because of the one-on-one attention he would receive and the smaller classroom setting,” Lakayana said.
The single mother’s intuition wasn’t wrong. At ABS West, there is a low student-to-teacher ratio, and every student receives tailored support for their needs, such as counseling. Priority is also placed on teaching students skills to manage and regulate their emotions.
“What makes us unique is the personalization we can provide. There are fewer distractions here. We’re a smaller learning environment, plus we don’t have the pressure to rush to prepare for this or prepare for that,” said Keys. “We have the opportunity to get personal with these students to learn what they need to be successful. We can give that here. If I have a student in crisis or in need of assistance, I have the whole day to do it. I have additional professionals to help me out too.”
“I’ve seen so much growth and maturity in Eric with being at ABS West. He sets his clock. He gets up every morning with no problem. He is responsible because he knows it’s what he has to do,” she said. “They didn’t judge him upon coming in. They knew what he was coming for, but they didn’t hold that against him. They treated him like any other student and gave him a chance.”
The emphasis that Dr. Keys and his team place on relationship-building is a cornerstone of his campus.
“Eric saw that the teachers cared about them,” said teacher Jonathan Mann. “He saw that the staff was not just willing to work with him, but they cared about where he was from, how much he progressed. I think that gave him the motivation to keep pushing forward.”
“It’s like they want to see you win, do great, and do better,” said Eric. “They are wonderful people. I’ve never worked with people like them. I’m taking this as a chance to work with them to see how far I’ll go. I want that diploma. I want to see my mom smile when I walk across that stage. I love my mama. I’m going to do what I have to do to make her proud.”
True to his words, it was Eric who realized he needed to go to summer school if he wanted to succeed. He voluntarily chose to recover his credits at ABS West.
“I took it upon myself to come to summer school every day. I don’t miss a day,” he said.
“He’s making up three classes this summer, and he’s doing the work,” said Keys. “He’s going out of town to visit family in Louisiana, but he said he would mail his work back. That’s how dedicated he is to recovering these credits.”
After completing his classwork in the morning, Eric has also found purpose and value elsewhere at the school.
“Once he completes his assignments, he has the opportunity to do some community service work,” said Keys. “He’s learning great job skills and vocational skills. He’s working with our food service manager and our custodian. He is also a mentor to the younger kids. You’ll find him going from class to class, checking on the kids, making sure that they can do their work, and helping them. He is not required to do any of these things.”
At the completion of every day, Eric tallies up his points sheet, a tool used in the Boys Town intervention strategy employed at ABS West. This education model utilizes a token economy system to motivate, reward, and hold students accountable for positive behavior.
“It’s like a checkbook. If you come to school every day and do what you need to do, you get points,” said Keys. “He can earn about 60,000 points every day, plus I give him bonus points for good behavior. It takes 100,000 points to buy a “bond” to move to the next level. The more bonds you have and the faster you get them, the faster you can go back to your home school—if you don’t misbehave.”
Eric is on level two and is expected to reach level three in the fall.
“He’s not misbehaving or being aggressive anymore. He’s listening and not eloping, so there’s no reason to hold him back,” said Keys. “When he does go back to his home school, he won’t go back by himself. We won’t just forget about him. We’ll send one of our transition specialists with him to ensure he’s successful.”
Transition specialists are tasked with helping students return to their home school with ease. Typically, they wait for the student to get off the bus in the morning and remain nearby throughout the school day. They check on classwork and provide social-emotional support as needed.
“We’ll provide support for him for as long as he needs or wants it,” says Keys. “If he only needs it for one week, he’ll get it. If he wants it for half of the year, we’ll give it to him.”
An emotional Lakayana Holmes says she can start to breathe a bit easier.
“Without ABS West, Eric would have gotten locked up because of anger and physically assaulting somebody,” said Lakayana Holmes. “ABS West has definitely been a blessing to my family, to me, to Eric. The teachers that are there that put in the time and effort—they saved my son.”
To learn more about ABS West, visit hcde-texas.org/specialschools.