After his lessons, Cameron likes to read his president trivia cards in his room. "I like to put my toys just the right way," Cameron said. "It helps me read better and pay attention.”
story by ZORA GORDON photos by ADDISON LEBOUTTIER

In December 2019, the Combow family decided to remove their 15-year-old son, Cameron, who has Down syndrome, from his public school in Franklin. When the family noticed that Cameron was persistently tired and becoming more withdrawn, they chose to homeschool him full-time for the remainder of his eighth-grade year and on.

“I think that my child’s education is my responsibility, and the school is there as a resource,” said Nancy Combow, Cameron’s mother. “He would be so tired from being in the school environment. By 7 o’clock he would be done for the day.”

Cameron had been in the public school system since he was 3 years old. However, due to inadequate resources in some public schools, the special education programs are designed so there are students of all different grades, with different disabilities and different cognitive levels in one classroom.

“Most of the time is spent trying to get their attention,” Nancy said, “They might have had an hour of true instructional time a day.”

In this limited amount of instructional time, the teachers have to accommodate the lessons for all of the students’ various learning levels. Cameron was not being challenged in this setting. He is high functioning, which for Cameron means he is able to cognitively process information at a high level. Being high functioning can mean something different for each individual.

Cameron Combow adjusts the slides on his microscope that he got on a family trip. “Even when we aren’t working on course work, he still loves to learn," said Cameron's mother, Nancy. "Whether it's reading, using his microscope or just asking questions he always stays curious.”

Paulina Combow, Cameron’s sister, said that Cameron is full of curiosity for various subjects but is most knowledgeable on history. Being homeschooled allows him to delve deep into the specific topics that interest him. He is an expert on battle strategies and niche topics, like the presidents of the United States and the Dragoons, a unit of soldiers that were trained for combat on both horseback and foot.

“I really love history, especially the presidents and the Civil War,” Cameron said.” I can name all of the Presidents. Kennedy is my favorite.”

If Cameron had continued with public schooling throughout high school, the special education program’s curriculum would have shifted from learning a standard curriculum to focusing on teaching life skills, such as how to grocery shop and participate in society. Though life skills are very important, Nancy wanted Cameron to continue with the traditional curriculum.

Instead, Nancy took it upon herself to create lesson plans and a curriculum catered to Cameron’s interests and needs based on his individualized education plan. This plan is for students with specific learning needs provided by the public school system, and it is the Kentucky Department of Education’s suggested homeschool curriculum.

The lessons he learns are not special education lessons but rather the standard curriculum modified to suit Cameron’s needs. Nancy pushes him to learn more but is also able to see when he is overwhelmed. 

"I like to incorporate everyday things into what I teach with him," Nancy said. "For example, today we found this fully intact cicada outside when we went to get the mail, so I want him to learn about the unique and beautiful things that we see together."

She tries to incorporate everyday life and current events in their lessons. 

“We cover so many things, not just a school lesson, but he’s learning life,” Nancy said. 

When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away in September, Nancy spent a week teaching Cameron all about the Supreme Court’s history and the judicial process. He learned about past and current justices and about the confirmation process for getting on the court with Justice Amy Coney Barrett. 

Learning is not only limited to the time set aside for school. Nancy tries to modify any task to be a learning opportunity. On a recent trip to their family’s farm, Nancy noted that several of the graves of family members buried were unmarked. Cameron has learned about their family history and improved his math skills by finding out how old they were when they died. 

Nancy and Cameron Combow walk around the cemetery in Franklin. Cameron is an avid history buff, and one of his favorite hobbies is to read all of the various tombstones. “I like to read the different names and try to figure out what their stories are,” Cameron said.

“I think always learning is key, so we are always finding something to learn,” Nancy said.

Cameron’s school schedule is also very flexible, which allows him to avoid burning out and getting exhausted. When Cameron gets distracted or tired of a subject, they are able to move on to something else. Nancy will often take Cameron for walks outside for physical education, or change subjects to lessen any boredom or exhaustion Cameron may feel. 

“He seems to be coming out of his shell,” Paulina, his sister, said. “He’s happier and sillier. Less out of it than he was.”

When the family decided to homeschool Cameron, there was fear that he would miss some of the social aspects of public school, like seeing his friends and being around his peers. 

Cameron and his older sister, Paulina, talk about their other sister, Portia’s, wedding while she and their mother, Nancy, go over the vows. For the wedding, Cameron walked his sister Portia down the aisle and also served as the ring bearer.
Cameron and the soon-to-be Portia Thurman peek around the bushes to see if everyone is ready for them to come down the aisle. “I’m really excited,” Cameron said. “My sisters are some of my best friends. I love them a lot.”

“Sometimes I really miss my friends since I’m not at school. But I still get to see them sometimes,” Cameron said.

In order to make sure Cameron is not left socially behind, the family utilizes supplemental learning programs such as Out School, an in-person online learning program that provides classes on various topics. Cameron has taken classes on magic and composition. He also regularly sees his best friend, and the two families plan trips together.  

The Combow family plans for Cameron to apply to the Next Steps program at Vanderbilt University when he is 17 1/2. This is a one-on-one day program for people between the ages of 18 and 26 with special needs that provides the college experience. It simultaneously offers the chance to complete an individualized program of study and earn a career and community studies certificate from the university. 

The Combrow family hopes that Cameron is able to have any life that he desires. Whether that be living with roommates, finding a job or staying at home. 

“My goal is to make sure Cameron has every tool in his toolbox to succeed at life,” Nancy said.

After getting ready for bed, Cameron and Nancy talk with each other about what the future holds for Cameron after high school. Cameron still has three years to go, but once he graduates, he hopes to go to school at Vanderbilt University as there are a great variety of resources for students with special needs, he said.
After reading, Nancy helps Cameron put on his shoes before going out to the cemetery. "I like to go out walking with him as much as possible to try to get him some exercise," Nancy said. "We will often go to the cemetery to walk so that we can go see his grandmother's grave, and because he loves history so much he likes to walk and read all of the gravestones for hours."
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