For Cheryl Joe, Polk County Public Schools’ newly approved endorsement for educators working with students who have autism — the first such endorsement in the state — is both a professional achievement and a personal tribute to her late nephew.
“If something like this had been in place at his school, Kedar might still be with us,” said Joe, PCPS’ senior director of professional development.
Joe’s nephew, Kedar, had autism, a developmental disorder that affects communication and the ability to interact with others. On the autism spectrum, Kedar’s condition was severe.
“He was diagnosed when he was about a year and a half old,” said Joe. “He didn’t make eye contact and he was nonverbal. He couldn’t express to you in words what he needed or how he was feeling.”
Early last school year, Kedar choked to death while eating lunch at the public school he attended in South Florida. The family believes that his death could have been avoided if the staff had proper training.
Kedar’s father and Joe’s brother, Jeffrey Williams, is a student success coach at Kathleen High School. In honor of Kedar, Joe’s family established the Kedar Williams Foundation for Autism Awareness, which aims to help children with autism receive services and continue their education.
Joe also channeled her grief into the district’s autism endorsement, shepherding it through the state approval process. With her oversight, PCPS is the first district in the state to offer the endorsement.
“Every time I sent an email about this endorsement, I thought about Kedar,” said Joe. “I never want what happened to him to happen to another student.”
In 2019, the Florida Department of Education directed FDLRS (Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resources System) centers throughout the state to develop autism endorsements for the districts they serve. FDLRS-Sunrise serves Polk and Hardee counties, and is headed by Senior Manager Dr. Poinsettia Tillman.
Tillman worked closely with Joe to gain state approval for PCPS’ endorsement. She too prioritized the endorsement because of her prior experiences with students with autism.
“My background is counseling. I was a guidance counselor for 10 years, and I have a mental health license. I work with a lot of parents of children who have autism,” she said.
“The parents need help. Our teachers also need support in working with these students in the classroom. A lot of the behaviors that are exhibited by students with autism are due to them not being able to communicate. If you can’t get those behaviors under control and meet their needs, these students can’t learn.”
During the 240-hour endorsement course, educators will learn to identify characteristics associated with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), demonstrate an understanding of current trends and research-based methodologies used to create appropriate instructional programs for these students, and become familiar with formal and informal assessments used for diagnosis and instructional planning.
The endorsement will be completed virtually and is now available to PCPS educators.
Tillman said since the endorsement’s approval, she’s received calls from several other districts looking to emulate PCPS’ program.
“I’m proud that we’re able to be a model for this endorsement. It’s so important that we support students with autism, their parents and their teachers,” Tillman said.
Joe is selling bracelets that read “Autism Awareness” to raise money for the Kedar Williams Foundation. To purchase a bracelet or make a donation, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.