May 06, 2013

Graduate devoted to helping ‘at-risk’ youths

by Christi Mathis

Travis Clayton

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Travis Clayton knows what it means to be an at-risk kid. He’s been there.

That experience, combined with the education he has received at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, will help Clayton have a positive impact on others who may find the going a bit rough.

Clayton, who lives in Cape Girardeau, will be the first person in his family to graduate from college when he receives his bachelor’s degree in special education during May 11 commencement ceremonies for the College of Education and Human Services.  The ceremony, which begins at 1:30 p.m. at the SIU Arena, is one of three on Saturday. The others are at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.; full details are available at

Clayton, 47, comes from a family that always worked hard but struggled financially. The grandson of a sharecropper, his father was a traveling evangelist and his mother labored long and hard as a health care aide and factory worker.

He went to work at the age of 14, earning what he could evenings and weekends to help support his mother and his sister.  He admits to being “a very troubled kid” but went on to enter public service in the early 1990s, initially as a community organizer. 

A co-founder of the Aids Project of Southeast Missouri, Clayton also served as the Ryan White Delegate for Southeast Missouri, helping coordinate HIV care and research in the region.  A recording and graphic artist and published writer, Clayton got the chance to work as an artist-in-residence at a residential facility for at-risk teens. While there, he saw a younger version of himself everywhere he looked.

“If they had had an emotional and behavioral disorder program when I was in high school, I would have been in it.  I got in a lot of trouble.  At the center, I saw myself in the kids I worked with and watched with awe as one door after another opened to allow me to continue working with at-risk teenagers and children with special needs.  I knew it was something I was born to do,” Clayton said.

For 20 years, Clayton worked as an aide in special/alternative education classrooms.  The last 18 years were with the Illinois State Board of Education’s Regional Safe Schools program, including nine years at Cairo and the last three years at the Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center in Anna.  All the while he dreamed of the day he could get his degree and return to classrooms as a certified teacher. 

He started college three times and took a number of classes.  But, working full-time to support his family, various obstacles kept him from finishing.  That is, until he discovered the Grow Your Own, or GYO, program.

“I was determined to make the best of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.  He admits that due to past experience, he entered the program with a bit of a chip on his shoulder.  But, with the wholehearted support of wife Kathleen and son Tyler, as well as SIU and the GYO program, success is now his.

“My experience with SIU and GYO has transformed my perceptions.  It was not possible for me to do this any other way.  I have to work just to make ends meet.  But SIU has been unique, in my experience, not just in terms of the expertise and commitment of the faculty and staff but in the degree of support and encouragement I received.  It’s just been phenomenal.  The professionalism and character of the people at SIU is enormous.  I’m the grateful recipient of so much incredible support and guidance from some of the most extraordinary human beings it has ever been my good fortune to know,” Clayton said. 

The state’s Grow Your Own program helps paraprofessionals, often already working in schools, become teachers.  It is not about shortcuts though.  To graduate, students must complete all of the same requirements as other teacher education program participants.  They can get their field experience in the school districts where they are already working, though. 

The GYO program came to the region in 2007, a couple of years after launching in the Chicago area.  A statewide initiative, it partners SIU, as the lead agency, with Shawnee Community College, area schools and a community organization, in this case, the non-profit FoCUS of Southern Illinois.  

The goals of GYO include increasing the number of racially diverse Illinois teachers and increasing the number of teachers working and remaining in difficult-to-fill teaching positions, particularly in school districts that find it hard to retain teachers.  The program also emphasizes training teachers for teaching vacancies in the areas of special education, bilingual education, science and math. 

GYO students attend night, weekend and summer classes and after exhausting other available financial aid, get financial assistance to cover up to seven credit hours of classes along with a book stipend of up to $200 per semester.  Each student may also borrow up to $25,000 to complete a degree and if they earn their teaching certification and work five years in a hard-to-serve school, the loan is forgiven.  The program also offers extensive moral support from the faculty, staff and other participants and can assist with child care, tutoring or transportation.

Clayton is one of the first students accepted into the Southernmost Grow Your Own program at SIU in August 2007 and is the recipient of a TEACH grant as well as the GYO scholarship.

“Because of this program, people can work and go to school and still have some time for their family.  This isn’t a program that produces graduates overnight; it takes time and commitment.  It’s a family commitment, too.  Travis is living proof that GYO does help people succeed and graduate,” Janet Maggio, recently retired grant coordinator for FoCUS, said. 

Clayton is graduating Magna Cum Laude.  Jan Waggoner, associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, said nearly all of the GYO students are honor students and they are frequently active in academic campus student organizations.

Clayton has earned many fans at SIU.  They praise him as a great student with incredible drive and enthusiasm and say that coupled with his years of experience with youths, it creates a combination they are sure will make Clayton very successful teacher.

“He’s going to be an excellent educator.  He is able to meet the academic and emotional needs of diverse learners.  He has a unique ability to manage behaviors while expecting academic excellence from his students,” Paige Helm Maginel, clinical supervisor for the College of Education and Human Services’ Office of Teacher Education, said.   

“He has an innate intelligence and ability with at-risk students.  He is very artistic and an excellent writer.  He brings so much to the classroom,” Maggio agreed.

Not surprisingly, Clayton’s goal is to find a teaching job working with at-risk students.

“These are the kids I can relate to best and I feel I can have the most impact with,” Clayton said.

Waggoner said it is obvious that Clayton has a passion for kids with behavior disorders and that he relates well with them.

“He can fill a niche with kids that probably can’t be filled by anyone else,” she said.