LAKELAND (FOX 13) - These days, on the campus of South Eastern University in Lakeland, you'll find more than just college students. Just a short walk away from the library, you'll find middle and high school students with special needs in a brand new suite of classrooms. It's called the Pathways School of Excellence.
Director Teresa Paton, who is on faculty at the university, directs the school for children with special needs.
"It's like a dream come true," she says.
With the help of faculty, the community, and parents, the dream became a reality in September 2016.
"To be able to bring them in and provide for their needs...where people are not going to bully them, not make fun of them but embrace them, that's huge, huge for me to watch and huge for them to experience," Paton explains tearfully.
Pathways students eat alongside college students, acting as buddies, daily in the cafeteria. Education students spend time in their classrooms learning how to teach students with communication and learning disabilities. There is even a pathway for seniors, like 17-year-old Joshua Graham, to attend college classes after graduation.
"It's very exciting. I've always wanted to go to college, but having this experience before actually being in college, it’s just amazing!" Joshua smiles.
Joshua struggles in social situations. He says the security of his small classroom, coupled with his interaction with the college students outside, is helping him break out of his shell.
"I'm thinking about being a speaker and going around and telling everybody like to stand up for themselves," he says.
One classroom over, 12-year-old Zachary Franz is learning about plants in his science class. He says unlike his former school, his Pathways teachers write on the board, and push him academically in his favorite subject, social studies.
"I want to be a politician and i want to help people," he says. "Being with my classmates - talking to them about, 'how are you doing in school?'"
In the third classroom, you'll find soft music and subdued lighting.
"It just serves as a very calming comforting environment," Paton says.
A nearby sensory room equipped with a soft carpet, bean bag, rocking chair and even an inflatable canoe, give kids a place to go as a reward, or as a place to help overcome behavioral responses.
"A lot of times our students want to come in - sometimes rocking will soothe me so I'll sit and I'll rock," Paton demonstrates.
Paton admits, along with the benefits there have also been challenges.
Challenges Joshua hopes to help other students like him overcome.
"If you have disabilities don't let anybody tell you what you can and can't do, just follow your heart," Joshua said.