Do Not Discard
An uncommon educator helps those least likely to succeed

Picture this: It's a fine spring day at the University of New Hampshire. You're a junior studying English and education. The school year is over except for an exam or two, and you've just received your student-teaching assignment for the following fall. So you decide to go for a swim in the Lamprey River a few miles from campus. You park by the side of the road and walk down the grassy bank to the river's edge. You strip to your bathing suit, look down at the smooth tannin-dark water. You take a deep breath and dive in.

What you don't see is a whole new life lurking in the river. Your hands break water, then your head. Then you feel the thunk, the shock, the snap of your neck as your head strikes a granite rock just below the surface.

That's what happened to Rob DeBlois '76 back in the spring of 1975. The next thing he knew a stranger was dragging his limp body out of the river. By the end of the day, he was lying heavily sedated in a hospital in Portland, Maine, with a broken neck, a shaved head and a stainless steel clamp screwed to his temples to prevent any head motion. At age 21, DeBlois was a quadriplegic for life.

Yet as tragic as the event was, it also signaled the beginning of a remarkable new direction for DeBlois. Now, some 25 years later, in the living room of his ranch house in Seekonk, Mass., he says that the accident confirmed his decision to enter the field of education. "I was heading in that direction," DeBlois says, "although I didn't really think much about it. But afterward it seemed like the right thing to do. It's one of those fields where being crippled can be an asset to the extent that you can focus on possibilities rather than liabilities."

Rob DeBlois '76 works with students the education system has largely ignored.

It's hard to complain about having to read Romeo and Juliet or figure out a quadratic equation when in front of you is a dedicated, optimistic teacher who can't even walk across the room or pour a glass of water or tie his own shoes. DeBlois has even used his condition as an occasion for humor, chiding lethargic students, "Hey, even I can walk faster than that."

When, a year after the accident, DeBlois resolved to pursue a career in teaching, he could not have guessed the impact he would have in the field. The list of successes is impressive. He is the founder and director of the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program, a remarkable inner-city middle school in Providence, R.I., for kids at risk of dropping out.

His efforts to help students the mainstream system has largely ignored have earned him an honorary degree from Rhode Island College and a prestigious National Caring Award from the Caring Institute (other recipients include Mother Teresa and Jane Goodall), as well as praise from many of the nation's leading education reform advocates. CBS Radio aired a feature about the school's success with troubled kids. Fox Television followed suit. The U.S. Department of Education has cited the Urban Collaborative as a model program. The Carnegie Foundation has honored DeBlois for his efforts at school reform.

"I think I'm lucky," DeBlois says about the success of his school and the attention he has received, "mostly because I've had great support from my family, especially my wife, Bonnie. I've also worked with some extraordinary people and had some extraordinary mentors. It started right at UNH after my accident. I had fantastic professors, including [education professor] Ellen Corcoran and [English professor] Don Murray '48, who went out of their way to help me. And there was George Griewank, an English teacher at Oyster River High School, who taught me so much about working with kids in the classroom."

That support and mentoring continued at Brown University, where he received a master's degree in English, and with folks like Ted Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, and others involved in education in Rhode Island. "I don't know whether people helped me because of my condition or if they did it as a matter of routine as educators, but it certainly made a huge difference. Working with such great people made it that much more exciting to be a part of their world. Through their care and energy, they made education seem like such a vital place to be."

Those who know DeBlois will tell you there is another side to it: DeBlois' own sense of justice and determination. "Rob has an ability to see an alternative reality, and he sees it so clearly, it's impossible for him not to act on it," says Karen Voci of the Rhode Island Foundation, one of the institutions that has supported his school over the years.

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