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Senior Spotlight - Darren Thomas, Adult Learning Center

Senior spotlight - Darren Thomas, Adult Learning Center

Darren Thomas Darren Thomas is proof that it’s never too late to graduate high school.

Thomas, age 58, who was born with cerebral palsy, was only able to complete the eighth grade, as back then, students with special needs didn’t typically attend high school. After leaving school, Thomas began a 34-year career at the Kansas Elk Training Center for the Handicapped, Inc. (KETCH), where he put together air filters.

But not being able to graduate high school was always a regret and something that Thomas talked about often.

Three years ago, Thomas’ brother, William Polite, director of Equity, Diversity and Accountability for the Wichita Public Schools, moved back to Wichita to care for Thomas and his mother. Polite happened to meet Dr. Cindy McGilvrey with the Wichita Public Schools Adult Learning Center and asked her if his brother could attend classes at the center.

“We got together with the principal, Leroy Parks, and they put together a plan of study for Darren,” said Polite.

That plan included Patricia Barlow, a retired English teacher from West and long-term substitute at the Adult Learning Center, who has volunteered to serve as Thomas’ tutor for the past three years, creating a special plan of study consisting of math, science, telling time, reading and writing.

“Sometimes you need to find a way to give back,” said Barlow. “And working with Darren was my way of giving back.”

When Thomas had to miss school for six weeks last year due to being injured in a fall, Barlow visited him in the rehabilitation center to make sure he didn’t fall behind in his studies. 

Seeing his brother succeed has been overwhelming for Polite.

“It’s been amazing to watch the growth in Darren,” said Polite. “When he first got his school ID badge, you would have thought it was a gold medal. He loved having homework and carrying his book bag. He has been so proud to be a student again.”

“What he’s done is phenomenal,” said McGilvrey. “When Darren got here he didn’t know how to use a computer and didn’t even know the vocabulary surrounding computers. Now he is able to use the mouse and do lots of things on the computer.”

But McGilvrey says that it’s not just the cognitive gains that Thomas has made that have impressed her.

“His presence at the center is community building,” said McGilvrey. “It couldn’t happen to a more beautiful soul. He has a beautiful spirit. His tenacity has been amazing to watch.”

Now that Thomas has earned his high school diploma, he has no plans to stop learning.

Next fall, he plans to enroll in Friends University’s Friendship Fields program which allows college-age adults with disabilities to experience college life while also offering Friends students the opportunity to work with special needs students.

He also plans to continue rooting for the Wichita State mens basketball team, where he has been a fixture behind the team bench for the past 30 years.

While Thomas is excited to graduate, he’ll miss his friends and teachers at the center.

“I’ll miss Dr. Cindy a lot,” said Thomas. “She’ll do anything for me. I’ll also miss my friends here.”