Shaping & Enriching Lives Through Educational Support Services
by Lisa Abbott
In the alcove of rooms dedicated to Heritage's Educational Support Services (ESS), a highly-qualified team of educators lives out the truth that every student is fearfully and wonderfully made by God, the Creator.
For twenty-six years, ESS Director Julie Hight has shepherded and developed the group’s vision: to offer support and resources for students with learning differences and to give them every opportunity to thrive in the Heritage academic environment. To know this remarkable woman is to understand that God providentially designed and equipped her for her important work. Her empathy and compassion for students and their families spring from the sum of her own life experiences and the breadth and depth of her professional expertise.
ESS Director, Julie Hight
Early Life Experiences Shaped Her Interests
The seeds of compassion were planted early in Hight’s life. The untimely death of her father when she was young girl had a big impact. “God has used the scars and the pain I experienced to help me relate to people,” says Hight. “I’m thankful for the difficult journey.” From her mother’s teaching and example, Hight says she learned to “never, never, never give up.”
When Hight was in junior high school, her mother suggested that she volunteer at a summer day camp for children with special needs in their home town of Anderson. “That experience opened my eyes,” she remembers. “I discovered that we were a lot more alike than we were different. We all had a desire to have fun and to do kid things. It never left me. It was always something in my mind and, ultimately, it shaped what I wanted to do with my life.”
College Opened Professional and Spiritual Doors
Hight pursued a degree in special education at the University of Evansville. The unique program included four hours of clinical training experience, four days a week, throughout all four years of study. The real-life experience confirmed Hight’s desire to pursue a profession in the field of special education.
I have such a heart for parents when they come in and their hearts are broken over their child’s challenges. It requires balance, prayerful consideration and professional judgement to make the right call for the student.
Her professor, Dr. Dewey Moore, imparted words of wisdom that Hight has carried with her ever since. “If you feel sorry for students who struggle,” he said, “you can’t teach effectively because you’ll be wrapped up in pity and be rendered ineffective.” The principle shaped Hight’s own balanced approach. “I have such a heart for parents when they come in and their hearts are broken over their child’s challenges,” she says. “It requires balance, prayerful consideration and professional judgement to make the right call for the student.”
In 1977, Hight was devastated by the tragic news of the University of Evansville charter plane crash that took the lives of the school’s basketball team and several of her close friends. In the midst of this crisis, one of Hight’s friends openly shared her faith in Christ with her seeking friend. Hight found answers to her spiritual questions and turned her life over to Christ.
Work and Ministry Focused on Kids with Special Needs
After graduating from U of E, Hight relocated to Texas, where she taught at the Mary Lee Residential Center, in the Austin school district. The educational center was a refuge for 75 students, ages five through 18, who had suffered the effects of abuse and had been diagnosed with severe emotional and behavioral disabilities. Hight taught all subjects to her 15 pre-adolescent students, year-round. It was a tough assignment, but Hight says, “I loved seeing them make progress. Even a small step forward represented a huge gain.”
On a visit to a local racquetball court, Hight met a young man (Dave) who was stationed at Bergstrom Air Force Base. He, too, had recently become a Christian and was working in youth ministry at Boulevard Baptist Church. He was eager to talk about his faith and invited Hight to attend church with him. Their friendship quickly turned into courtship and the couple married in July of 1979.
After five years in Texas, the couple decided to move to Chicago, where Dave could pursue pastoral training at Moody Bible Institute. Hight worked as a receptionist in the school’s audio/visual department and also taught an undergraduate course in Christian education. Her three-hour class intensive trained pastors and laypeople how to develop effective special education ministry programs for their churches. She also was a featured guest on Moody’s radio broadcast and traveled often, delivering onsite workshops for churches.
As special needs awareness grew in the 80s and 90s, Hight spoke on the subject at Moody’s annual pastor’s conference. “I had the incredible privilege of helping men and women with the idea that we can better serve all families by serving families with special needs,” she says. She also contributed to the writing of two textbooks: Christian Education: Foundations for the Future (Moody Press, 1991) and Childhood Education in the Church (Moody Press, 1986).
I enjoy the challenge of equipping teachers to help students who learn differently.
The nine years of experience with Moody brought a new insight for Hight. “I realized that I’m a person who loves to see the learning take place. It’s that moment in time when a student understands or is able to do something that they had not been able to do even the week before,” she says. “I enjoy the challenge of equipping teachers to help students who learn differently.”
Hight Joins the Heritage Staff and Community
In the summer of 1990, the growing Hight family had moved to Indianapolis and began to explore school options for their two young daughters. Oldest daughter, Lauren, began kindergarten at Heritage that fall.
Just a few years earlier, Heritage had started to offer educational therapy for students with learning differences, through the National Institute for Learning Development (NILD), a faith-based, national organization that pioneered modern educational therapy and developed teacher training and certification standards.
In 1991, then-administrator, Tim Hillen, hired Hight as a part-time NILD therapist. When the need arose in 1993 for a part-time NILD program coordinator to head up the burgeoning group of teachers, Hight stepped up to the role. Her responsibilities increased to a full-time position a year later, just as the Hights’ youngest daughter, Lindsay, started as a kindergartener at Heritage.
From 1995 to 2000, Hight also served as a member of an instructional team at NILD, teaching the research-based educational therapy model to would-be instructors. She traveled and taught at NILD workshops, summer training programs and winter conferences. She also completed her master’s degree from Butler University in 1998, earning further distinction as a licensed and certified school psychologist.
The Hight family spent roughly a year living in Iowa, as Dave pursued a professional opportunity there. When they returned to Indianapolis in 1999, Hight became Heritage’s school psychologist. In 2000, Hight and her team mapped out the group’s mission and vision and adopted its existing name, Educational Support Service (ESS).
Left to right: Row 1: Nancy Jacobson, Row 2: Michelle LaFleur, Julie Huggins, Christy Deaton, Caryol Meyer, Janelle Spencer, Lynne Martin, Row 3: Diane Rennick, Susan Beck, Julie Hight, Eileen Howell, Rachel Smiley, Not pictured: Jodi Sarver, Tracy Helm
An impressive ESS portfolio of support resources for students with learning differences evolved out of an ongoing quest to meet the changing needs of the student body. “We’re committed to helping students reach their potential,” says Hight. “At Heritage, we’ve been privileged to have the flexibility and opportunity to try new things to meet student needs.” Today, ESS employs a team of 13, with each member playing a critical role in addressing the special learning needs of a significant percentage of Heritage students.
With 20 to 40 percent of the Heritage student body receiving direct or indirect services from the lean ESS group, it makes for a plate that’s overflowing with demand for the valuable resources the group provides. Hight credits her hard-working team with the positive results they witness daily. “I couldn’t work with more passionate, talented, caring people,” she says. “They’re so skilled at what they do. Every day, they advocate for their students because they’re committed to helping them succeed.” The credentialed, specialized instructors bring decades of Heritage experience to students and their families.
Programs Matched by Student Success
Numerous ESS alumni have graduated from Heritage and found collegiate and professional success. Hight believes that the perseverance and work ethic they learn through their challenges and their ESS experience are significant factors in their achievements. Nothing thrills her more than seeing students overcome their challenges and learning differences. “We have the unique perspective of seeing kids from kindergarten to graduation,” she concludes. “It’s just amazing to see what God does in and through them. We have the privilege of knowing people in their struggles and seeing them overcome what once seemed like impossible obstacles to them reaching their goals.”
A Vision for the Future
That process of transformation continues to motivate Hight. Affordability presents the biggest obstacle to making the resources available to more families. It’s a hurdle she’d like to clear. Annual ESS fundraising, through the Eagle Golf Classic that benefits the HOPE (Helping Others Pursue Excellence) Fund, creates a limited number of student scholarships. But demand far surpasses supply. Her dream is for a long-term strategy that makes programs a feasible option for more students.
We have the privilege of knowing people in their struggles and seeing them overcome what once seemed like impossible obstacles to them reaching their goals.
It’s this kind of student-focused, visionary leadership that has propelled Hight to find creative solutions to other seeming obstacles over the past two-and-a-half decades. She’s confident that this challenge is surmountable, too. Her spirit of determination serves as a model for the tenacious students whom she and her team serve. Her lifelong role as champion and advocate for kids with learning differences and their families is one she still cherishes. “I’m grateful and consider it my privilege to walk alongside these students and their families,” she concludes.