We moved to this town five years ago, when Brady was just starting third grade. We moved a mere ten miles down the road but it seemed like two different worlds. We moved because after fighting with Brady’s school for years to keep him in an included classroom with his peers, at the end of his second-grade year, they no longer would allow him to stay included and wanted to move him back into a segregated classroom for children with special needs.
With three children, in a bad housing market, we packed up our home and moved “down the road” to a school district who did believe in inclusion. We took on the financial burden of carrying two houses for a year but in the end it was all worth it. At the end of his first school year, his third-grade year, I spoke before the Board of Education about our experience. A local newspaper reprinted my remarks.
What inclusion looks like in the Chappaqua Schools
March 18, 2011
Editor’s note: At the March 15 school board meeting, Director of Special Education presented the details of the Special Education Budget for school year 2011-12. During the question and comment period, a mother spoke about her son’s experience with inclusion at one of their elementary schools. The following is a reprint of her remarks.
Hello. We have three children at your elementary school. My oldest son, Brady, is in third grade and he has Down Syndrome. Prior to moving here this September, we lived right down the road in the next town over.
Brady has always enjoyed being around and learning from his peers. Unfortunately, our prior school district believes the only children who can be eligible for their inclusion program are ones who need minor assistance to keep up with their grade level academics.
So ever since Brady was in Kindergarten, we have had to fight with the School District to keep Brady in an inclusion classroom. By the end of the last school year our prior School District left us with only two options: either give up on Brady and put him into a full-time resource room, or move, and hopefully find a town with a different definition of what inclusion really means.
Brady also has verbal apraxia, which makes it difficult for people to understand his speech. Brady knows what he wants to say but he is still learning how to coordinate his lips and tongue and breath to make all his phonetic sounds come out correctly. So this makes communicating with his teachers and peers a little more challenging.
During Brady’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings in Bedford, I was constantly bombarded by degradations, such as, “Why do you want him to be included, he has no friends.” At these same meetings I would bring in videotapes of Brady reading and doing math at home, to show the capabilities they would not admit he had. They wouldn’t even regard the videos, saying if they didn’t see it happening in the classroom then it didn’t matter if he was capable of it.
Finally after three years of fighting to keep him in a class with his peers where the school was doing nothing to help him succeed, our lawyer finally sat me down and said, “Bedford doesn’t believe in inclusion like you, so see it. They are never going to change their philosophy. Move. Find someplace that believes your son has a right to an education and deserves to be with his peers.”
And thank goodness we found that here in this town. We didn’t move here because this town has a bigger Special Ed budget than our last one – I would guess that the dollar amounts are similar. We didn’t come here for more services. We just wanted Brady to be educated with his peers. He’s a very tenacious worker, he’s very proud of his accomplishments, he’s not a behavioral problem, and he loves being around his peers. Just let him be included.
This town is unique in their philosophy behind the word “inclusion.” The very first line on the Special Ed district website is: “All education in our School District is inclusive.” It continues on to say, “Inclusive education enriches the diversity in classroom learning communities providing all students expanded opportunities for better understanding the world, those around them, and themselves.”
That’s huge. That means you are all part of a community with a philosophical belief that you really and truly believe every child is worth something, has something worthwhile to share, and thereby deserves to be educated with their peers. And that you want every child to be part of your community no matter what type of disability they have. Do you know that one of the members of your town library sits in on our PTA Special Ed meetings? Now that’s community.
They say it takes a village – and it does – but not just any village – it takes a community like this one, where the children are taught at school from the very beginning words like “friendship,” “community,” “respect” and “courage.” Our schools are building better citizens as a whole. When you have a child in your class who is obviously different than you and needs more help, these words that you have learned take on a whole new level of meaning when you interact with them.
We live in a global community. There are language barriers, cultural differences. For our children to be the successful leaders of tomorrow, having the opportunity to learn and appreciate diversity at a young age is an incredibly important tool.
So, how is it possible for one school district to not have believed Brady capable of even participating in an inclusion environment, and yet Brady’s school psychologist at his elementary school has told me that she believes Brady is the biggest success story their inclusion program has ever seen? It’s because they believe in Brady here. And it’s tangible. He can feel it.
His whole team supports him and encourages him and comes up with incredibly creative ways to make him feel like part of his class while educating him. By creating an environment where the burden of proof does not fall on the child to inherently show that he is capable, but for the teachers and team to inherently believe that he’s capable and feel it’s their purpose to unlock that child’s full potential, that’s a clear recipe for success.
In just a few short months, Brady has already moved ahead a reading level; he is writing sentences; his handwriting has improved tenfold; he has started doing multiplication and fractions in math; his speech has vastly improved. He recently learned and recited the Pledge of Allegiance with two classmates during the announcements for his whole school. And with the help of his Special Ed teacher, Brady gave a presentation on a biography in front of his whole class, to thunderous applause. And now he has a line in the school play that he’s in. For a child who was labeled “friendless” by his last school, at his current school, he has a whole rotating list of friends who want to have lunch with him and play with him at recess and have play dates with him. And his team made a point to let me know that his classmates aren’t just being nice to him, they really like him.
In this economic time, as budgets are tight, it’s important to understand those programs and principles that make this town not only admired, but that are also helping to continue to build the legacy of our community, which is to shape better citizens. We need to continue to reinforce the fundamental philosophies that make this district not just a town, but a community, not comprised of houses, but of homes.
It’s interesting that the theater program the PTA is sponsoring this year is putting on a production of “The Wizard of Oz,” because we feel like we have moved from a black and white world to an incredible world of color. And even more striking is that in one of the scenes Brady will be playing the Tin Man, because as art so often imitates life, he finally has a school that has handed him a heart full of love and respect and support. And that makes all the difference.