Jennie and I were touring a local private school two years ago while shopping for the perfect academic world for our little special needs guy. We were wary of public school’s focus on academics (we’d heard tales of 45 minutes per night homework in Kindy!), and longed for our precious one to go to a school that embraced individuality and different learning styles; one that honored emotional intelligence and right brained-ness. As we toured, there was one word proudly repeated more than any other to describe the student body of this particular private school: diverse.
Turns out they have a scholarship program that allows minority and lower income families to attend the school. As I walked across campus, this diversity was everywhere evident: children of all color and creed happily bounced from class to class, played at recess and studied in the library. I loved it.
My wife and I have had a little tug of war since we met. I am the product of public schools, and she of private. She’s always maintained that private schools are simply better. While I concede that I like the idea of smaller class sizes and progressive curricula, the one thing private schools lacked (I thought) was diversity.
But this was a private school that placed diversity near the top of its list of important qualities. After the tour, Jennie and I were both in total agreement: this was where Graham needed to go.
Long story short, Graham didn’t get in. And as it turns out, it was a blessing. He’s happily going to our local public school. But a question bubbled up inside me after this experience, a question about whether there is a type of diversity that perhaps this school has over-looked.
What -- I kept thinking -- about developmental diversity?
Right now in the public schools the buzzword of the day is “inclusion”. In the past, special needs children were separated from their peers and placed in their own “special ed” classrooms. But lately communities have been realizing the importance of including children with special needs into mainstream classrooms, both for the students with special needs and the typical kids. Including these children does not come without considerable challenge: Placing a child with significant needs into a classroom of 30 kids and one teacher can quickly overwhelm the teacher, compromising everyone’s education. Still, finding a way to make it work is one of the important frontier issues facing our educational system.
During our private school tour, I remember asking the woman leading us what kinds of sensory accommodations they had in the classroom for children who might have some mild sensory needs. Off her blank stare I followed with asking if the school had an OT on staff to consult with teachers. Turns out, this private school is like most – they don’t have any apparatus, training, or desire to accommodate children with special needs. And I understand why. Think about the expenses involved with this: hiring OTs, PTs, speech pathologists, school psychologists, running IEPs, providing aides and shadows, on campus therapy clinics and equipment. The costs would be huge. And what’s more, since public schools are required by law to provide free and appropriate education to these kids, perhaps servicing children with special needs is better left to the public school system.
Dan Habib, a father and acquaintance of mine, who made the wonderful and important documentary film Including Samuel (www.includingsamuel.com) argues that inclusion is a civil rights issue. Segregating children with special needs only deepens the stereotypes and prejudices about them, and perhaps most importantly, increases the odds that low expectations will result in disappointing outcomes.
I’m not suggesting that private schools like the one we applied to should expand their definition of diversity to include children like Graham. The fact that they see value in any diversity at all is a huge leap forward, one most private schools can’t hold a candle to. But I do think it’s worth noting that this missing element in their student body is unfortunate, both for the school, its students, and the children who get turned away because of their extra needs. And the bottom line is, it limits the diversity they so treasure.
Another result of this no-special-needs approach, is that parents are motivated to hide their child’s developmental issues and learning challenges in order to increase their chances of acceptance. Teachers then report a fair number of “quirky” kids, who as a result of the secrecy come with no warning into the classrooms of ill-equipped teachers.
We decided to do the opposite. We came forward with the whole story about what Graham had been through and how far he’d come. But what I didn’t see at the time, that fortunately the school’s admissions staff did see, was this simple, irrefutable fact: this was not the right school for Graham.
And Jennie and I both shared a moment of realization: we loved this school because we believed it would have been the right school for us!
Three weeks ago, Graham started first grade. He has a full-time aide provided by the district. He gets OT, PT and Speech both push-in and pull-out. And he gets to go to school down the road, with kids from the neighborhood. And the school, which, ironically, is less diverse racially and economically than the private school, due to our local demographic, has one kind of diversity they can’t match.