It’s a wonder I didn’t quit before I even started. Fresh off from gaining my special education degree (in an era where the famous 94-142 federal bill now known as IDEA was just being implemented), my first job was to teach all the behavior disordered/emotionally disturbed 5th and 6th graders in a public, urban school district. The kids had been identified in their schools and were then bussed over to one building and one classroom where I was supposed to do something with them. If it hadn’t been for bills, a new home mortgage, and my stubborn belief that I could do any job, I should have walked out the door. Another clue to me should have been that upon meeting my principal for the first time, her first words were that she was trying to move my program out of her building, for fear of “my kids” beating up the rest of the kids at her school. It turned out to be one of the most demanding jobs I have ever done, but also gave me insight into the complexity of each child and their life situation. However, I had the feeling that sorting and separating of students into a self contained program was not really the best way to proceed in educating students – research has continued to bear out that all students benefit from an inclusive education approach.
As I reflected on writing about this topic of inclusivity, I realized that this is a personal topic for me. I grew up in a home where my parents demonstrated empathy and compassion for the needs of others. One of our frequent Sunday dinner guests was Joe, who had athetoid cerebral palsy, making it difficult for him to control his muscle movements. At first I felt uncomfortable as a child watching him eat, but learned to see past that and enjoy the real person God made him to be. Having the opportunity to assist as a sighted guide for blind persons gave me experiences that shaped my desire to return to college and gain a special education degree. Later my work as a public school administrator responsible for disciplining middle school kids, supervising special education programs and then developing with others a comprehensive at risk program reinforced the need for a balance of justice and grace applied at a personal level. These experiences helped me recognize the common desires we all have as individuals for belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. In Christian communities, we have the opportunity to create and live shalom – an environment of interdependence and valuing of the image of God in each, so that each may experience flourishing. Plantinga (quoted in Hoeksma) believes that “creating shalom – ‘the webbing together of all people in justice, mercy, and delight’ is the central task of the school.” As institutions called to be about the “foolishness” of the gospel (good news for all!) Hoeksema suggests that inclusion is countercultural in that it confounds society’s dominant notions about who and what has value, i.e. high achievement, individual talent, and personal independence.
Why this topic now? I would suggest several reasons that Christian schools must take a strong stand for inclusion:
- We are living in a time of a coarsening of cultural discourse, of partisanship and division. Inclusion can be one of those rare issues that unifies a community, showing what it means to be the body of Christ as one. Jesus reached out to the marginalized in his society, demonstrating love, justice, and compassion. As Christian leaders, we must do the same.
- Christian schools are not fully realizing their missions to bring Christ to all students when they are selective by student ability or financial capability. We are to bear one another’s burdens – that should include funding a sports program because your child is athletically gifted as much as funding an aide to assist my child in an inclusive setting. Each child has particular needs – what we choose to fund really makes clear our values. Do our practices show faith in God’s provision or an over-reliance on bottom line thinking?
- Inclusive education forces us to articulate our distinctive values – both about what it means to be Christian and what we value in our students. When we focus only on sorting students into categories of ability, we invariably miss out on our students’ multifaceted richness as image-bearers of God. Without students of diverse abilities, our schools have a greater challenge in demonstrating what makes us Christian in the ways we see and value our students and our communities.
This is the first of four blog posts on this topic of inclusion in Christian schools. I am delighted to collaborate on this topic with Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski, executive director of CLC network, a national Christian special education consulting group. We will also be doing two webinars and will have special guests who have various levels of experience implementing inclusive education in their schools. We invite you to register for our upcoming webinar on January 24 @ 1pm EST.
To help us begin the conversation, we invite you to send us questions that you may have on this topic by responding to this post. We will address as many as we are able in this blog series and in our webinars, but we want to dream about the future of Christian education for students at all levels of ability alongside you.
Some questions that we have been asked in the past include:
- Doesn’t the public school have more resources for students with high needs?
- Why should a Christian school be inclusive of students at all abilities, when we are pressed for resources as it is?
- We have a pull-out program, tutoring, etc. for some needs. How is inclusive education different than that?
- Certainly not every school can be inclusive, right? We might be able to handle some levels or types of ability but not others.
Sources cited and consulted:
Dombrowski, Elizabeth Lucas. (2016, January 19) Welcoming Disability in Christian Schools [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://cace.org/welcoming-disability-in-christian-schools/
Hoeksema, Thomas B.. Radical Shifts: New Ways of Thinking About Disability and Schooling. Christian Educators Journal, February 2007.
Villa, Richard A. and Thousand, Jacqueline S.. Leading an Inclusive School: Access and Success for All Students. ASCD, 2016.