Recently I was talking with an administrator who has long been supportive of inclusive Christian education for students with disabilities, and he reflected on the attitude of parents of students with special needs. “Every time they come, it’s a question of ‘won’t you please include my child?’ Why is that? Their child belongs here; we are incomplete without students with special needs.”
This is coming from a school that has made a major effort to include students with significant needs into the academic, social, and emotional fabric of the school. They have a reputation for doing inclusion well; yet, parents of students with special needs know that Christian schools don’t have to accept them. And in fact, most won’t. I can tell you story after story after heartbreaking story of parents who have been rejected from not one, but multiple Christian schools.
When we send those parents away, we think there are other, better options. But there aren’t. And the public school doesn’t necessarily have any more “resources” than you do. I’ve told several parents, “Yes, the public school might include your son or daughter, because they might get fined if they don’t. Or, try a Christian school, where they might include your son or daughter because he or she belongs there.”
Let’s change the reputation of Christian schools. We aren’t here to be elite, we aren’t here to compare test scores. We are here to raise children of God! How can we do that without students with disabilities in our midst? We need them to contribute their gifts to our schools, we need whole families to enroll, and we need them to challenge our teaching practices.
“OK,” you might ask, “but how much money are we talking? You’re asking me to make a significant investment.” And yes, I am. In fact, I want you to make that investment without charging any more in tuition to that student with a disability. Charging a student twice as much as everyone else doesn’t say to them, “You belong here!”
How do we start?
Inclusion is achievable, and easier than you might think. You can navigate this on your own, or you can ask for help (we’re here for you). Start with the students you already have; how well are you serving them and honoring their differences? Are there siblings in your school family who aren’t attending now? How are you teaching and talking about the gifts that students with disabilities bring to your school community?
Inclusive education succeeds with the desire to receive and unlock the gifts of every student in Christian schools. In practice, it means that we strive to integrate students with moderate to significant levels of ability within the academic and social framework of the school. We focus on ownership, in that each students’ primary classroom is their general education classroom, and friendship, that intentional community and social relationships are key to serving each student well.
To address some common misperceptions:
- Inclusive education is not a program, it is a perspective and a desire. There is no one way to get it right, and no one tool that is going to fit each student. We start by looking at the gifts of every student, and the values of every school, to develop a unique plan based on best practices.
- Inclusive education is not devoid of pull-outs or specialized instruction. Many students will require and benefit from specific interventions, tutoring, and support from specialized staff. However, they are considered integral members of the general education classroom or grade level by teachers, parents, and their peers.
- Inclusive education does not mean all students will learn all things. For students with significant disabilities, we go beyond academic performance or production in the classroom, creating goals for students that address seven areas of development. Inclusion then helps boil down the curriculum to what’s most important (as it did for Gavin).
What is the opportunity before us?
As Christian schools, we have a unique opportunity to enroll, support, and receive the blessings of students with disabilities as valued members of our communities. Rather than compete solely in academic achievement, we can shine a light on a path for Christian schools that demonstrates in real, visible, and incredibly effective terms what it means to be a Christian community. We do this by willingly and enthusiastically including students with disabilities in the fabric of a school, not because we are mandated by law to do so, but because we believe each student is a child of God.
What about you?
Let’s hear about how you’re trying to do this already. Share in the comments your success and struggles. Are you intentionally linking inclusion to your identity as a school? How so? What is your reputation in the community, and how could or how has inclusion changed that? How do our current and potential parents know that we care about students with cognitive impairments, autism spectrum disorder, or behavioral/emotional disabilities?
Dan Beerens is an educational consultant, author, international speaker, and educational leader. Before starting Dan Beerens Consulting in May 2010, he served as Vice President of Learning Services and Director of Instructional Improvement at Christian Schools International. Prior to that, he was the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Holland Christian Schools. Dan has also worked as teacher and principal in urban and suburban public and Christian schools in Wisconsin and Illinois. He serves as a Senior Fellow at CACE (Center for the Advancement of Christian Education), represents Curriculum Trak sales and professional development and serves as co-chair of the annual Christian Deeper Learning conference. He blogs regularly for CACE and is the author of Evaluating Teachers for Professional Growth: Creating a Culture of Motivation and Learning (Corwin Press) and co-editor of the recent book MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education (ACSI).