Madison Essig danced at two proms her senior year. There was her high school’s traditional senior prom, where she asked a junior as a date in a cupcake-filled promposal. She wore a sleeveless black dress and heels that gave her 4-foot-6 frame a few extra inches.
Essig, 19, has Down syndrome and attended Woodrow Wilson Senior High in Northwest Washington. She had already become an advocate for people with disabilities in her school’s hallways, and many of her friends have become involved in the nonprofit since getting to know her. About 50 classmates took a bus from their high school one May evening to attend the prom together at the Carnegie Library near downtown — a night she and some of her classmates say was more fun than the D.C. school’s own prom.
Essig graduated from high school Tuesday with more than 400 classmates, including her 17-year-old brother. She is believed to be among the first with Down syndrome to graduate from a D.C. high school with a standard diploma since D.C. Public Schools started keeping digital records in 1996, according to school system officials.
It was a feat Essig accomplished by taking the majority of her courses in mainstream classrooms without an aide. Other courses — including geometry — she took in a class with a special education teacher but followed the standard curriculum and workload.
She graduated with an A-minus grade-point average and is now ready for her next challenge: college. She will attend George Mason University’s Learning Into Future Environments (LIFE) program, which is tailored to postsecondary students with intellectual disabilities.
Her “disability” has been no impediment to Essig’s success in or out of the classroom. In addition to her stellar academic record, Essig managed to build a robust social life.
“She’s a lot more popular than me,” said her brother, Zach, adding that Madison would often arrive home talking about a new friend she had made that day. “Her happiness is contagious.”
“Yeah, I have a lot more friends than my brother,” she said.
When Essig was born, doctors told her parents that she would be able to walk but might never learn to read or write. They were determined, though, to provide her with the same opportunities as all other children. They quickly learned that Madison had the work ethic to make the most of those opportunities.
“She just doesn’t give up,” said her mother, Kimberly Templeton.
Essig has been in mainstream classes since she was in grade school in Roanoke. In third grade, Templeton held her back a year because she was struggling socially, and she wanted her daughter to be in the same grade as Zach and his twin sister. The family moved to the District when the children were sophomores in high school, and Templeton was able to get Madison into mainstream classes at Wilson.
People with Down syndrome typically learn slower, and they can struggle to learn conceptual and abstract concepts. Essig is vocal in class when she doesn’t understand something and needs extra help. She wants to earn a four-year college degree and become a professional advocate for people with disabilities.
“It opened our mind to what is possible,” said Wilson High School’s principal, Kimberly Martin. “We shouldn’t just reach to the minimum status. We should push all students, regardless of their ‘labels,’ to their best.”
Erin Doherty, a graduating Wilson senior, said she had never met someone her own age with an intellectual disability before meeting Essig. The two quickly became close friends, and now Doherty is president of the school’s Best Buddies chapter.
“As soon as I met her, she was so fun to be around,” Doherty said. “Not every high school student gets to meet someone like Madison.”
Zach, who will attend Tufts University in the fall, and other students led an educational campaign at school to stop students from using offensive terms to describe those with intellectual disabilities. The students had an assembly, at which Essig spoke about why insults are so hurtful.
“I've seen the most popular kids in this school change over three years by just being exposed to Madison,” Templeton said. “I guarantee that they are better people — they are more empathetic, they are more understanding, they are more patient.”
Essig says her favorite part of high school has been attending with her brother.
“It’s been amazing,” she said. “He’s helped me a lot.”
And her brother marveled at how his sister was able to go to prom and graduate high school alongside him.
“She might have Down syndrome, but she can still go to dances, go to school and graduate,” he said. “She’s shown so many people that having a disability doesn’t have to hold you back.”