Written by Audrey Vernick (with special thanks to Laurie Strawn)
The SFUSD is excited to celebrate the proclamation of SF Inclusive Schools Week, which will be held December 6-10 in conjunction with Inclusive Schools Week events across the Nation. “The Week highlights and celebrates the progress of our nation’s schools in providing a supportive and quality education to an increasingly diverse student population, including students with disabilities and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.” (www.inclusiveschools.org).
Since I am the mother of a child with cerebral palsy, I can’t help focusing on inclusion as it pertains to children with disabilities. But it’s impossible to take on that subject without discussing ‘inclusiveness’ in all of its forms. When we looked at schools for our son, Bennett, we chose Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy because of the way that they honor diversity on all levels. The school philosophy is to point out how each person is different, and then to celebrate those differences. I didn’t want my son to be the only ‘different’ kid in his school, and really nobody wants that for their child, whether or not they have special needs.
But inclusion is about more than just the child with special needs fitting in to his school environment. It’s also about kids changing the world around them as they learn naturally to interact with and accept their peers from varying backgrounds, and of various abilities. “We hadn’t thought about Harvey Milk being an inclusion school when we listed our choices,” said Jennifer, also a Harvey Milk parent whose son is Bennett’s classmate. “But we recognized the importance for Alex and our family from the first weeks of kinder. My husband and I had thought about how to address differences with Alex, but in the end, Bennett taught Alex, and Alex came home and taught us.”
Victor Tam, former principal of Jefferson Elementary, now principal of the Chinese Education Center, had this to say about inclusion: “To me, inclusion means that all students get the opportunity to have an equitable and fair experience in their school and classroom, no matter what different challenges they might face. Inclusion for the community means that on a deep and personal level, we accept and embrace all people no matter their differences. As I was growing up in a small city back East, I was the one Asian student in school through grammar and high schools. I recall the loneliness I felt in not connecting and not being allowed to connect to the larger school community. We need to open our hearts to allow ourselves to connect with people who may be different, and then we’ll know inclusion is truly working.”
‘Inclusion’ as a special education service means that children with all kinds of challenges are educated alongside their typical peers. Inclusive education looks different for each student because everyone is unique, but services might include: an inclusion specialist; para-professionals who help students at school; resource specialists; speech, physical, and occupational therapists who help students in different areas such as reading, speech or communication skills, fine motor skills (activities you do with your hands), and gross motor skills (walking, standing, running; things you do with your legs and larger muscles).
Laurie Strawn, an inclusion parent at Jefferson School, explained that while it may seem like services are going to support just a few kids in the school, actually all children benefit. Recently in a meeting at Jefferson, a general education teacher spoke up to say that the supports in the classroom helped all 22 of her students do better, not just the child with challenges. Lauren Tobin, an inclusion specialist at West Portal School, agrees: “When I come up with a modified curriculum for an inclusion student, the teacher will often adopt it for the whole class because at least half of the kids could benefit from that curriculum.”
Ruth Bond is the mother of twin boys in first grade at West Portal School. When they were in preschool, one of the twins was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder called Angelman Syndrome. Ruth described her feelings about inclusion this way: “We saw that Ben was not just going to catch up, but we didn’t want to change things; we didn’t want to separate him from his brother. We didn’t see why he should be suddenly treated differently. Also, I didn’t want to send that message to Max that his twin brother couldn’t do the same things and go the same places because of his disability.”
Jackie Fox, an inclusion parent at Jefferson Elementary, says, “Inclusion has made Joe want to be part of his peer group. For children with autism, this is a huge hurdle our kids need to breach, to break through into the ‘mainstream’ world. Also, inclusion teaches typical kids that the world is not as perfect as we would like it to be.”
“As long as children are separated there is going to be fear,” said Rachel Goldstein, whose son Antonio is in inclusion at Francis Scott Key Elementary. “Inclusion teaches them acceptance, tolerance, compassion, patience. It brings out the best in these children. I can’t tell you how wonderful these kids are with my son. If you give them the opportunity to rise to the occasion, they all do. It shows them the potential to be better people in their community, it gives them mentoring opportunities, and it is good for their self-esteem to know that they can help another friend. The kids will go home and talk about Antonio, so the children are teaching their parents about inclusion as well.”
Students I spoke to reflect those sentiments. “Inclusion is a good experience because then you know how to work with people of different abilities,” said Andre, a fifth grader at Harvey Milk. “You can teach them something and they can teach you something. I had a friend in my class, and he taught me to be gentle with a lot of different kids with disabilities.” Andre also discussed how having a peer with challenges motivated him: “Sometimes I feel like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this!’ But then I think, ‘I wonder how my friend is feeling?’ I feel like my struggle is nothing compared to his struggle so I should just keep on going.”
Inclusive schools foster the building of an inclusive society. Our children are teaching us how to be more accepting, in spite of the experiences we may have had growing up in a more segregated society. Almost everyone will have some form of a disability at some point in his or her life, whether they are born with it, have an accident, or develop it in the natural process of aging. It’s important that young people are raised to accept others despite their challenges. The inclusion and recognition of people with disabilities, is in many ways, our last great civil rights battle.
“Disabilities are a part of the human experience,” said Laurie Strawn. “We all have special gifts, special stories to share. Nothing in life is perfect, and sometimes, that is actually good news for all of us.”