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SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: Zach Cromwell, Sterlington High School

Posted Date: 05/10/2024

SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: Zach Cromwell, Sterlington High School

Sterlington graduate Zach Cromwell’s walk across the stage Monday night at Sterlington High School’s graduation ceremony was more than just receiving his diploma. It represented his journey through Ouachita Parish Schools.

What started as a Pre-K student always telling his teachers “no” transpired to an emphatic “YES” seeing Cromwell sit as one of the 20 valedictorians of the Sterlington graduating class. A little more than a year before Zach started Pre-K, his mother, Penni, learned he was autistic.

At the age of 2, Zach stopped speaking and started pointing and noises bothered him severely. Penni was lost. She had a friend who contacted the Ouachita Parish School Board to have Zach evaluated, and he qualified for the Special Education program at Swartz Elementary.

“Susan Jones was the teacher of the Pre-K class at that time, and that’s when our life changed,” Penni said. “He was non-verbal. We really couldn’t take him out in public. Everything was just too much.”

By the end of Pre-K, Zach was talking and able to do more things on his own.

“I knew from the moment that I got Zach that he was going to be a really, really smart child,” Mrs. Jones said. “I could see the potential in him from preschool. All the teachers he’s had throughout his lifetime, we’ve all invested in him to be successful. Zach has always been smart. We just had to get it out of him.”

Years prior to having Zach as a student, Mrs. Jones attended a week-long training on autism in North Carolina. At that time, the statistics on autism were very rare – about 1 in 10,000 children. Since that training and several other special education trainings, Jones has seen several students come through her classroom that have flourished in their first year in Ouachita Parish Schools, and beyond to high school graduation.

“I always want to see them do their best,” Jones said. “You’ve got to have a positive attitude that they can do that. You need to reassure the parents – reassuring them they can be successful, and they can do things. You just have to believe in them. I knew he (Zach) had it in him. He would always tell us no, but we were not giving up on him.”

After Swartz, Zach attended Sterlington Middle School, where he met Special Education teacher Windy Culp.

“Most middle schoolers, their emotions are all over the place,” Culp said, “With Zach’s autism, he struggled to regulate that any way, but he did a great job. He felt like my room was his place to let go. We walked through lots of meltdowns. He’s super smart. He didn’t need anything from me academically. He just needed a space to be free and comfortable.”

Culp spent all three years with Zach in middle school and after his freshman year, she also moved to Sterlington High School. She only had Zach for one hour a day his senior year. He spent all four years in a regular classroom, making his 4.0 and ACT score of 30 all the more impressive.

“I saw him do all the things he wasn’t doing as a sixth grader,” Culp said. “I saw him mature and having conversations with teachers – just communicating with adults, very maturely and very calmly. It’s been impressive to watch him grow.”

The once Pre-K student who did not do well with noise was now a drummer in the high school band. Zach also took a special interest in multimedia, and as a senior, did the morning announcements for Sterlington High School.

“Every school we have been at, God has played a part and put someone there to love on us and to minister to us,” Penni Cromwell said. “For the most part, kids are just so sweet to him. They know he’s different. He knows he’s different, but they’re just so kind.”

Zach has been accepted into the Honors Program at ULM where he plans to major in Business. He was voted “Most Artistic” at Sterlington’s Awards Day and enjoys producing and engineering music. He also got his driver’s license in the past year and plans to live on campus in the fall.

“Just sitting there (at graduation) Monday night, and looking at his face … yes, this young man has grown and matured and he is going to be OK in this real world,” Culp said. “He has a plan. He knows what he wants to do.

“It’s just so impressive. It warms my heart. This little boy who’s smaller than I am in the sixth grade who just needed a moment to put his head on my shoulder is now this grown man standing tall and proud. I am in awe of the things he’s accomplished. He’s headed somewhere and is going to be a productive citizen.”