Wentzville assistant superintendent

A champion for children

Wentzville assistant superintendent wins international award for supporting and advocating for vulnerable youth

By Brett Auten

Cheri Thurman as always been there for the underdog, the outcast and the ignored.

Thurman is the Assistant Superintendent of Student Services for the Wentzville School District and has worked in special education for over 40 years. In July, she was named the 2018 recipient of the Spirit of Crazy Horse Award by Reclaiming Youth International. The international award is given each year to an individual whose distinguished contributions through practice, policy development or research, creates courage for discouraged children and helps reclaim our most vulnerable youth.

Thurman has been with the Wentzville School District since 1985. She has a Master of Science in Special Education, with an emphasis in students with social and emotional challenges, from the University of Idaho. Early in her career, she co-managed a classroom for severely emotionally troubled students that was recognized as a Model Program by the state of Oregon.

From there she moved to Missouri, where she started the Therapeutic Learning Center at Wentzville, which was recognized by the state of Missouri as a Model Program and was the first in-district, on-campus, day treatment model in the state.  For 29 years, she has been working in the Wentzville School District as a district-level administrator, teaching staff to connect with students who struggle with emotional disorders Throughout her career, Thurman has been a champion of children who need someone to value them as unique individuals and look beyond their self-defeating behavior patterns. She sees a child’s behavior as a means of communication. 

“Children are telling us they have a need. If we will listen, they will talk; and if we are genuine, they will trust,” Thurman said. “In order for children to thrive, they need a sense of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity.” 

This yearning to help be the voice of these children has its roots close to home.

“I think I came from a situation that occurred when my brother was in school,” Thurman said. “He was very intelligent but struggled some and his experiences were pretty hurtful in a school system, and he really struggled because of that. As I went on in my education, I was determined early on that I would not be part of that kind of system and that I would not be the next adult in these kids’ life to reject them.”

Thurman has introduced several alternative programs in the Wentzville School District based on a teacher/therapist model.  In addition to the Therapeutic Learning Center, Thurman has brought the Stepping Stones program, Educational Support Counselor Clinical Mental Health Program, District System of Care, High School Alternative Program, Middle School Alternative Program, Anabranch, Substance Abuse Intervention Program and the acquisition of the private Mind Development Program (created and directed by Stacy Altrup) to the Wentzville School District.

Wentzville School District Superintendent Dr. Curtis Cain called Thurman a true champion for all kids, especially those without a voice.

“She has fought for what is right – not popular – for the entirety of her career, and especially in her 30 plus years in the Wentzville School District,” Cain said. “I have yet to see a challenge outlast her passion for kids. She has never lost her north star and has nurtured, challenged and supported countless others – including me – to do the same. It is a privilege to work beside her. Simply put, Cheri is one of the most committed and dedicated child-centered educators I have, or will ever, know. I can’t think of anyone in this field more deserving of this recognition.”

When she is not building and molding programs at WSD, Thurman is an avid reader who enjoys time with her dog and has called the physical fitness system Pilates a, “lifesaver for me.”

As for the future, she will continue to put her nose to the grindstone.

“I will continue to construct new programs in and around the district,” Thurman said. “We have a focus on building a ‘trauma-informed culture.’ I will continue to educate the staff and help when and where I can to make kids’ lives a little better no matter what crisis or sadness they have been exposed to.”

Past recipients of the Spirit of Crazy Horse Award include Muhammad Ali, former United Nations Ambassador George McGovern, former United States Attorney General Janet Reno, and Peter Yarrow of folk music trio Peter, Paul, and Mary. Thurman received the award during the 25th Annual Black Hills Seminar in Rapid City, South Dakota, held July 27-29.

“Honestly, I was shocked,” Thurman said when she found out she won. “I have known for years the group of people who support at-risk children and have received this award. It is an honor to be recognized by Reclaiming Youth International. They have been such a support and a motivation for the work I have done. They are people I am in awe of, and when you realize the list of people from around the globe who have received this award, it is difficult to find the words to express my gratitude.”

CUTLINE: Photo courtesy Wentzville School District Cheri Thurman (wearing the robe) is presented the Spirit of Crazy Horse Award by Larry Brendrto, Martin Brokenleg and Steve Van Bockern, authors of “Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future,” and creators of the Circle of Courage.