When we had our first child, I imagined we would find the best schools for our children and they would thrive in a school that reflected our neighborhood, had a great music and arts program, and lots of clubs and exciting opportunities for them and us. We live on the edge of a wealthy neighborhood. We often shop, eat, and attend church there; but we live (although one street away) in another county. As a result, our daughter attends school in a poorer neighborhood across town.
Why does she attend the school across town? Our daughter is eight years old and has various disabilities, labeled “moderate-severe.” Even though a newer school is just a few miles from our home—one with music and art funding—they don’t “do inclusion” and don’t have a “Special Ed Class.” As a result, we had to choose another school to receive the best special education services for her needs.
At my daughter’s school, I see hungry students, students who don’t get picked up from school, and students struggling with basic needs. When we spend time in the community near our home, I hear the kids talk about their voice lessons and world travel clubs, and my heart becomes heavy as I think about how different their experiences are, how much they take for granted, and how much they don’t SEE the world just a few miles away—just like me before our daughter’s needs drew us across town. Still, I love her school. It is diverse and beautiful, and so much more than my children would experience on the other side of town. The teachers care—really care—to the depths of their souls, because they want better for these kids. And they can differentiate learning beyond what most teachers think is possible—out of necessity. Still, music and art are limited, and the kids experience maybe one or two field trips a year, if any.
I always believe in the importance of family involvement at school. So I became really involved in the PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) to help make a difference through fundraising in order to support more programs and bring family activities to the community. Every day I ask myself why parent volunteers have to work so hard to clip box tops and sell candy just to scrape up enough to cover the cost for one bus to take two classes of kids for one day to see a farm. Meanwhile, wealthier schools get bigger and bigger grants for bigger and bigger projects and buildings and sports fields. I just wish the heater would work properly at our school, the field didn’t flood everyday from the storm drain so the kids could actually play on it, and all the facilities are accessible.
Every school my daughter attended before her current school told us inclusion wouldn’t work for her, and that inclusion wasn’t what we thought it was. Five schools later—and questioning our sanity in the quest for a better future than most individuals with disabilities have—we had the opportunity to realize that inclusion was exactly what we thought it was and it does work. Our daughter is in second grade, and some would say she is learning at a kindergarten level, but this school chose to include her. They didn’t do it because we asked, or because they had to, but because they looked at the needs of an eight year old girl and simply asked, “How can we help her succeed?” At this school, every child learns differently and every child is struggling, and it wasn’t even a question of if, but how. The teachers know from experience that all children learn differently and all children need support and a sense of community to succeed.
We wanted the best school for our child and we found it, because inclusion is much deeper than facilities and programs. Inclusion involves everyone looking beyond what children can’t do based on their circumstances to see instead what they can do when we become champions for them and provide the support they need, when they need it, and in any way we can provide it.
“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” -Arthur Ashe
– Kimber Rice