Learning life at school
Inclusive approach for special students pays off for all at Hub elementary
The interview questions scribbled in the block-letter penmanship of an elementary school student were both profound and typical for a 7-year-old seeking input into the hiring of a second-grade teacher.
The first question: “Have you taught people with disabilities like me before?’’ The second: “Will we do math in second grade?’’ And the third: “If I find something challenging, what do you request that I do?’’
The questions, accompanied by six “good qualities for a second-grade teacher,’’ show the continued growth of Anthony Curioso, a first-grader at the Henderson Inclusion Elementary School. It wasn’t the first time Anthony, who has cerebral palsy, advocated for himself: Last year he convened a meeting of classmates to discuss alternative recess activities because, as he recently put it: “I was just sitting there and watching, and it was a running game, and I don’t run very well.’’
The outgoing boy, who takes halting steps and uses a wheelchair to travel long distances, is in his second year at the Dorchester school, which has become a national model for educating students with a range of physical and intellectual abilities, from Down syndrome to above-average IQs, within general education classrooms. The practice — revolutionary two decades ago — has become increasingly mainstream, though educators say it remains a challenge in urban school districts, including Boston, struggling with a myriad of issues.
At the Henderson school, where up to 35 percent of the 228 students have a disability, there are two certified teachers in every classroom — one in general, elementary education and one in special education. The school’s academic philosophy is that “it’s not the students who are disabled, but the curriculum,’’ and that it is the job of teachers and administrators to help students learn through digital textbook readers, visual arts, or movement.
“It’s a pretty unusual model,’’ said Patricia Lampron, the principal. “We’re teaching them that being disabled is normal. It’s about being flexible in your definitions of what students are able to do.’’
Anthony’s parents, Jackie Wright and Don Curioso, said that flexibility has created a safe and secure environment that has allowed their oldest son to flourish.
Anthony has a 4-year-old brother who is developing typically and will join him at the Henderson next year.
This is Anthony’s second school, and enrolling him meant he had to repeat kindergarten, a decision his parents said they agonized over.
But ultimately, they decided that repeating a grade was better than staying in a school where the only option was a substantially separate classroom or a traditional classroom that had 22 students, one teacher, and little additional help.
“If you have a typically developing kid, you have a litany of choices. If you have a specially developing child, then you’re presented with an option,’’ said Wright, who became emotional speaking about their decision. “And then what happens when you think this school is not a good fit for my child? It’s just hard.’’
She and her husband said they wanted for Anthony, who started reading at about 3, what most parents want for their children: to be in an inclusive environment where he develops genuine friendships, is challenged academically, and can participate in extracurricular activities if he so chooses.
And, they said, he has done all of the above, including taking taekwondo and Irish stepdancing.
Last month, when the school playground resurfaced from under the mounds of snow, Anthony and a friend, Michael, could be seen playing a game called “Hearing Aid Repair Shop’’ during recess.
“It’s a very complicated game,’’ Anthony later said, with all seriousness. “We use part of Michael’s string that helps him focus, and we pretend that it’s broken and we fix it. We’re both mechanics.’’
Anthony, who wears a hearing aid, said he doesn’t know who came up with the game. His friend is autistic and loves to twirl the string, which is used as a reward for good behavior, their principal said.
Research has shown that when students with and without special needs are integrated in one classroom, their long-term life experiences are better, said Thomas Hehir, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and a former director of the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education programs.
“You see a benefit for all kids,’’ Hehir said.
Special needs children educated in the integrated classroom “are more apt to be employed,’’ he said. “They are more apt to finish school, and they are more apt to go on to higher education.’’ And students without disabilities, he said, learn that “disability is simply a form of human diversity.’’
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.