When students enroll in Craig Cotter's class, they bring along a sad array of severe behavior problems. They have been abused, neglected and suffer from fearfulness and a lack of trust. Many have committed assaults and destroyed property, even though they are as young as 11.
"A new child who comes is in very rough shape--he might have brain injuries because he was hit in the head many times," said Cotter, a special-education teacher at Five Acres Boys' & Girls' Aid Society of Los Angeles, a private nonprofit school and treatment center in Altadena. "All he thinks about is violence and abuse; he feels like hitting the first thing or expects to be beaten up."
But Cotter's dedication and resourcefulness have helped many of these kids, earning him praise from his supervisors and honors from the Child Welfare League of America as one of five Child Welfare Workers of the Year.
"Children have to be emotionally secure to focus on academic text. I'm trying to teach them through other senses--by touch, listening, and that is why we do gardening, cooking and so on," said Cotter, 32. He teaches spelling by playing recorded songs and having the students follow along on lyric sheets, and explains mathematics through baseball.
"Craig has brought so much excitement (to the class) that he captured students' imagination and challenged their curiosity," said Robert Ketsch, executive director of Five Acres.
"One of his students, who came from a very abusive and neglected environment, was four years behind. After one year, when Craig was teaching him, he is now hoping to get to the gifted program (at a traditional elementary school)--he, in fact, jumped four years. And he was one of the children who were excluded from regular schools and even the special public schools."
In addition to academic subjects, Cotter helped his students start a newspaper, Classroom Outburst, and devised the special program that taught them gardening, cooking and how to take care of animals. He also organized some 30 field trips to parks and museums.
"We selected Cotter (for the award) because he presented such a creativity that it made children feel good about themselves while they learned academic material at the same time," said Jean McIntosh, director of the Western office of the Child Welfare League of America.
Cotter received an undergraduate degree in English from Michigan State University, then worked for three years at the Hillside Center in Rochester, N.Y. He moved to Southern California in 1986 and has spent the past seven years teaching at Five Acres.
In September, he will teach a new group of 12 students and return to his research at Cal State Northridge on the reading abilities of disabled children. "I do love my work," he said. "I think I can retire from here. And I'm afraid that since the number of child abuses cases is still increasing I won't lose this job."
This column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people of all ages and vocations and avocations, whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better for the people they encounter. The column is published every other Monday.