Fifteen-year-old Thomas Ledbetter, who will be a sophomore at Newark High School this fall, thinks the education he’s getting is pretty special.
In May he wrote an essay explaining why his education matters so much to him in order to enter the eScholar “Make My Education Matter” contest.
And to his complete surprise, he was the first place winner in the 13-17 age group and has won an Ipad Mini. Claire Nicholson, 12, of Syracuse, was the first place winner in the 8-12 age group and also won an Ipad Mini. There were nine finalists in the contest and they each received $50 gift cards.
Here’s Thomas’ essay:
“There are many different reasons my education is very important to me. Most people think that education would help me get a job in the real world, but for me, it is different. I have so many different reasons that the number is almost stratospheric. Despite this, I will share the three most important reasons to me: I want to expand my horizons as a person, I want to gain knowledge that will help me in my life, and I want to teach people more about autism and help them understand it more, because believe it or not, I am autistic myself.
The first big reason is that I would like to become more open-minded and be able to expand the abilities that I have, not just intellectually, but also emotionally. Being educated with other students gives me opportunities to talk and become friends with people and expands my horizons. Talking with people also has helped me see how people view the world and how they think about things, which helps me understand people better and I have come to realize that the more people I talk with, the happier and more complete my life is.
The second big reason is that throughout my life, I have always had a hunger for knowledge. The majority of this is due to my father, who was able to get me into a general education classroom instead of being in a special education class. By the time I entered Kindergarten, I had over a 1000 word vocabulary because of him teaching me so much. Thus, I have always been curious about things and like to learn things, and school is practically my haven for that. I have always thought that the material I learned was useful and interesting, and I enjoy almost every minute of it.
The third reason that education is important is because of my dream of becoming a neurophysiologist. I have in the past few years read many articles on people with autism being bullied, and I have been disgusted by the things that have happened to some of these kids. Thus, I started to research more about what autism actually was, and through that, I got to be very interested in my autism, and thus, I wanted to know how the symptoms of autism occur and what factors cause the different types of autism to be different. Ever since, I have aspired to help people with autism in my own unique way: by becoming a neurophysiologist and discovering more about autism. In order to reach that however, I have to go to college and get a degree, which means going to school. I have to be educated. It’s just as simple as that.
In conclusion, I feel that without education, I would never be where I am today. All I hope is that one day, everyone will realize why education is so important, and that without it, we wouldn’t have the great things that we have today.”
Shawn Bay, founder and CEO of eScholar, the software company leader in education data solutions to personalize education, said Ledbetter was the hands down winner in his age group.
“Thomas’ essay was the best in his category,’’ Bay said. “We were looking for kids who could really describe, in a meaningful way, how their education matters to them. Thomas did that and was very specific.
“He explained the various challenges he has dealt with pertaining to his autism and how he has turned challenges he faces into a goal for his life to help others. Thomas also explained how his parents and school have helped him. His essay was inspiring to all of us here and we believe it will be inspiring to others.”
Both of the winning essays will be read by Bay at a conference this month at the National Center for Education in Washington, D.C.
When Bay called Thomas June 22 to let him know he won the eScholar contest in his age group, he spoke with both he and his Dad, Tom Ledbetter, a Newark Board of Education member.
“I was very impressed with my conversation with Thomas,’’ Bay said. “I learned more about autism that I had previously known. And I really enjoyed talking with his father. They are both very impressive people.’’
eScholar issued a press release on its writing contest and the winners. In it, story, Bay congratulated and thanked everyone who submitted an essay.
“The essays that these students submitted give me and my team a better understanding of the perspective of individual students’ education and their goals,’’ he said. “The more we understand the different perspectives of individual students, the more we can help educators focus on those students’ needs and help them succeed in achieving their goals.”
Saying he was “completely surprised” to have won the contest in his age category, Thomas said he thought about what he was going to write for about four days before he wrote the essay. It took him two days to write it and another to proofread it.
He said winning the contest has motivated him to think even more seriously about his future goals of becoming a neurophysiologist and what kind of preparation that will involve.
Thomas plans to work even harder in high school and raise his GPA, currently in the mid-90s, in hopes of being accepting at the University of Rochester.
He also wants to sharpen his writing and communication skills because his goal as a neurophysiologist is not only to be a researcher but also to help change common misperceptions about autism.
“It isn’t necessarily a disability _ but a different way of learning and thinking,’’ he asserts. “I want to show people with autism that they can achieve just as much as anyone else can, if not even more.’’
As in his essay, Ledbetter credits not only his Dad, but Mother, Diane Ledbetter, in helping him to achieve as much as he has.
With their help Thomas has always been encouraged to do his very best. Their advocacy allowed him to participate in five studies on autism at the U of R ; gain admittance, at the age of three, into the Stepping Stones Learning Center in Irondequoit and be mainstreamed into regular education classes once he began kindergarten in Newark.
“If I didn’t have the parents I have, I would be in a totally different place,’’ Thomas said. “I’m very blessed.”
Newark High School Principal Tom Roote is excited about Thomas’ achievement and applauds not only the NHS student for his tenacity, but also his parents for being such a positive, encouraging influence in their son’s life and school career. And Roote wants to do everything he can to help Thomas reach his goals.
The NHS principal gratefully remembers when, as an undergraduate majoring in biological sciences at SUNY Cortland in 1993, the positive outcome of following his own Dad’s advice about the best way to open doors for his future career.
“I remember sharing with him that I felt as though I “blended” in so well that my strengths were never being revealed to those that could support my development,” Roote said.
His Dad advised him to introduce himself to the “right people and ask them to care for your development just as you do.” Roote did just that. Not long afterward, he was invited to be part of a crew doing field work for Dr. Larry Klotz, a well-published professor at SUNY Cortland, who was studying the effects of beaver impoundments on aquatic phosphorous levels. The summer opportunity became an important component of Roote’s resume.
On March 4, 2013, things were understandably a bit awkward at first when now “Mr. Roote,” the new principal at NHS, was greeting students for the first time as they came through the front doors.