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First Student with Down Syndrome to Graduate from DC Public Schools Does So with Honors

John Burger - published on 06/16/16

Mother pushed school to treat her like everyone else, and it paid off

Madison Essig has reached a milestone in her life, and she may have given the public school system of the nation’s capital a milestone of its own.

The 18-year-old just received her diploma from Woodrow Wilson High School and became the school’s first youngster with Down syndrome to have graduated with a full diploma.

She might, in fact, be the first student with Down to graduate from any Washington, DC public high school with a standard diploma since D.C. Public Schools started keeping digital records in 1996, according to The Washington Post.

And she did so as part of the National Honor Society, graduating with a 3.7 GPA.

“I’m so happy I’m graduating,” Essig said at the ceremony Tuesday at American University’s Bender Arena. “I have come so far in what I have done.”

The end of this chapter may have been very different, were it not for the intervention of Madison’s mother, Kimberly Templeton.

“When Madison was born, we were told she would walk, but there was no guarantee that she would ever read or write,” Templeton told Fox’s DC affiliate.

Madison and her mother said the biggest obstacle in her development wasn’t Madison’s ability – it was the education system. Schools were reluctant to give her access to the full curriculum because they told her it simply hadn’t been done before. So Templeton pushed. “What I wanted was her not to be labeled as a kid with Down syndrome, but just be a kid who had the opportunity to achieve,” she said. “Until she proves she can’t do it, let’s not stop her now.”

Essig took the majority of her courses in mainstream classrooms without an aide, the Post reported. Other courses — including geometry — she took in a class with a special education teacher but followed the standard curriculum and workload.

“I hope Madison serves sort of as an example that it is possible for someone with Down syndrome to reach their full potential if given the opportunity,” Templeton said.

“Don’t give up,” said Essig. “Honestly, school will be your best friend even though you might not like it. It is going to be the building block to a lot more stuff that is going to help you in life.”

Essig has been accepted into the George Mason University’s Learning Into Future Environments (LIFE) program, which is tailored to postsecondary students with intellectual disabilities. She is interested in studying disability and advocacy policy, especially in the education system.

And lest her 17-year-old brother, Zach, feel overshadowed by Essig’s accomplishment, it must be noted that he too graduated Tuesday from Wilson, along with 400 other students. The two have been in the same grade since third grade, when Templeton noticed that Madison was struggling socially, and she held her back a year to be closer to Zach and his twin sister.

That turned out to be a temporary problem.

“She’s a lot more popular than me,” Zach told the Post, adding that Madison would often arrive home talking about a new friend she had made that day. “Her happiness is contagious.”

Down Syndrome
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