By Dan Montgomery

Lutheran Family Services of Virginia’s Minnick School in Wise opened in 2010 with two educators and one student: Fourth-grader Ethan McGuire.

Ethan had autism, but it was his behaviors that were the issue.

“He was out of control, aggressive and challenging,” says Lori Long, one of Ethan’s original two Minnick educators. But as determined as Ethan was to disrupt his class of one, Long and Eric Salyers were equally determined to help him get on the right track.

Lori and Ethan

Lori Long beams over Ethan’s diploma

“I told Ethan way back then that one day he would be back in public school, attending high school, and then graduating,” says Long, now LFSVA’s supervisor of behavioral health care. “I promised him, all those years ago, I would be there for his graduation.”

On Saturday, Ethan graduated from Central High School in Wise. In the audience with Ethan’s father to see him walk across the stage and receive his diploma: Long and Salyers.

Eric Salyers and Ethan

Ethan with Eric Salyers

“I got to fulfill that promise,” Long says. “For us, the two who started with Ethan on Day 1, it was truly a special, full-circle moment!”

Roy Sanders, now principal of the Minnick School in Bristol, taught Ethan in both public school and, later, at Minnick Wise. Ethan, whose disruptive behavior had led to a series of expulsions from public schools, brought those behaviors to the Minnick School, Sanders remembers.

“The behaviors were there,” he says, “But he did a lot of work. The potential to be a really good student was always there.”

Under the guidance of the Minnick School staff, working in concert with his father, Robert, Ethan’s classroom behavior gradually improved.

“Each year, he got better,” Sanders says. “It came to a point where his only behavior was being really smart and ‘outspoken.’ He knew it all — and he did know most of it! But not everything.”

One year, Ethan knew enough to score a perfect 600 on a Virginia Standards of Learning test.

“That was amazing for what we’d seen at Minnick,” Sanders says. “We were really proud of him.”

“And now he’s a graduate,” Sanders says. “And he’s taller than me.”

“This is what it’s about,” Long says. “This is what it’s supposed to look like.”

For more on Ethan’s story, check out LFSVA’s blog on Father’s Day, June 16.