South Philly High School senior with Down syndrome achieves perfect attendance record

Matthew Flood has yet to take a day off from school since kindergarten.

South Philadelphia High School senior Matthew Flood has never missed a day of school since Kindergarten. The 18 year old allows no barriers to his education, including being born with Down syndrome. (Grace Maiorano/SPR)

There’s no such thing as sick days for 18-year-old Matthew Flood.

Whether there’s a tickle in his throat or snow on the ground, the South Philadelphia High School senior recognizes no ordinary barriers that, perhaps, would typically lead to an absence.

Accumulating a pristine perfect attendance record since kindergarten at George W. Sharswood School, the resident of 16th and Ritner streets continues to attend school every single day as he nears graduation later this month. Not missing more than 2,300 days of school over the course of 13 years, Flood has yet to let any obstacle stand in his way – even being born with Down syndrome.

“I’ve been teaching for 10 years, and I don’t know anyone who has received such a great award,” said Jennifer Pettinelli, a special education teacher at South Philly High School.  “With students with disabilities, to come every day when you have doctors appointments, it’s just an achievement. Wanting to come and not miss school is something to be proud of…One thing with Matthew is, even though he’s a student with Down syndrome, he wants to learn, and he wants to do what everyone else is doing. So, there’s no barriers.”

While never missing a day of school may seem daunting to most, for Flood, education is more than a necessity. It’s a zeal.

“I like learning new things,” he said.

Flood, a budding athlete, photographer and chef, is a student of South Philadelphia High School’s life skills special education program, which strives to foster academic and social independence for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

While his classes work to establish fundamental everyday skills, the curriculum has also helped Flood unearth aptitudes for various hobbies and even potential vocations. Most notably is his unexpected knack for cooking, as South Philadelphia High School’s culinary arts program has given Flood a chance to try his hands in the kitchen.

In school, he’s working to master pizza and chocolate chip cookies, but his mother, Ilene Flood, says, even at home, he volunteers to bread chicken cutlets for family dinners.

One day, he says, he’d like to prepare food for one of his favorite local eateries, including Primo Hoagies, Cacia’s Bakery and Melrose Diner.

“He definitely has an interest in cooking…Once he knows how to do something, he’ll just keep doing it, especially because he likes to please people, and he’s proud of what he does, too,” Ilene Flood said.

When Matthew Flood was a young child, she says an occupational therapist said he’d never master the pincer grasp – a developmental milestone when an infant uses an index finger and thumb to pick up a small object.

But, through the determination of his older sister, he gradually acquired the grasp.

Ilene Flood attributes a vast amount of her son’s achievements to both of his older siblings, who also happened to have achieved perfect attendance from kindergarten through their high school graduation.

“So when he came along, he just followed them,” Ilene Flood said. “He looks up to them. He admires them. He follows along with what they do.”

Matthew Flood also pours his perseverance and persistence into basketball, as for the last four years, he’s been an active member of a local chapter of the Special Olympics, which is an international nonprofit organization inclusive of children and adult athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities.

Alongside local peers he’s befriended since elementary school, the pals travel to local tournaments throughout the year. The group clinched a gold medal at Widener University’s 14th annual Special Olympics event in April.  

“The best part is hanging with my friends,” he said.

For Matthew Flood, whose idols include Spiderman and Bryce Harper, parting ways with his buddies, he says, will be the most woeful part of graduation.

However, he’s making the most of his numbered high school days, as he plans to dance and sing in South Philadelphia High School’s upcoming talent show, including performing one of his favorite songs – Gangnam Style, by South Koren rapper PSY.

Matthew Flood’s interest to size the stage is a testimony to his emotional, intellectual and social evolution since starting at South Philadelphia High School as a freshman four years ago.

“Matthew, when you first get to know him, might come off as shy and acting like he may not know,” Pettinelli said. “But, I’ve seen him from being that shy student to someone who has grown up to be very independent, very just secure in what he does. He’s got more confidence now.”

Following graduation, where he’ll be officially honored for his perfect attendance record, Ilene Flood says Matthew will enroll in a vocational program where he’ll continue his life skills education while also preparing for a career.

Although concerns are inevitable, Pettinelli and Ilene Flood do not seem particularly worried about Matthew’s future, as they stress that, between his tenacity and his tenderness, the young man has much to offer.

Whether assisting a fellow classmate with crafts or purchasing juice for a homeless person, Matthew Flood has his own set of life skills that can help to change the world.

“He’s a pleasure,” Ilene Flood said. “He’s a joy. He has some moments, but overall, he is someone that I wish everybody could meet and follow some of the things that he does. Because he doesn’t see color. He doesn’t see differences in people. What I would like to say is – he sees people that most of us look at as invisible…he has so many lessons to teach us, and we’re constantly learning from him. He’s made us better people.” 

Twitter: @gracemaiorano