For the last three years, university faculty associated with the Whole Schooling Consortium have been working in several schools around Michigan as researchers and critical friends for supporting positive change. Each of these schools has made a commitment to including children with disabilities in general education classes and moving away from segregation and exclusion. These schools are also, simultaneously, struggling to honor diversity, operate democratically, partner with parents and the community, build a sense of care and community in the school. We've been learning a lot. Out of conversations we have become aware of the interest and need for teachers and principals and parents to network with other schools to learn from one another. Several of these schools also want to provide leadership for inclusive teaching and schooling practices in the state.
Two key principals, Jan Colliton from Hillside Elementary in Farmington and Barbara Mick from Ausable Primary in Grayling, collaborated with university faculty to plan a meeting held on February 28, 2001 for and staff from 7 schools form the "MICHIGAN NETWORK FOR INCLUSIVE SCHOOLING". We thought this would be a good and valuable meeting. However, we weren't prepared for the unleashing of energy and creativity and commitment and sharing of stories that made many of us cry.
Some 40 people attended, representing 7 schools and 4 school districts. Dr. Michael Peterson, Facilitator of the Whole Schooling Consortium, began with an overview of the Five Principles of Whole Schooling emphasizing the practical ways these principles play out in schools. (See the website of the Whole Schooling Consortium). School staff the shared where they were. The intellectual and emotional impact of the experiences of people sharing about their growing journey towards inclusive schooling was like a wave of hope, joy, and courage all rolled into one -- struggles with bureaucracy, personal learning and growth, collaboration of teachersm stories of specific children. By lunch several people were choked up and almost crying. The sense of commitment and care and courage in the room was awesome. For those advocates and parents who struggle with cruel schools and teachers, it would be amazing to know that such people exist and are driving their schools and teaching, bit by bit, to including all children in learning together. As one teacher said, "This morning gives me hope."
The afternoon we divided into heterogeneous groups made up of representatives of the different schools and each group discussed what a statewide network would do, would look like. We came back together and shared, developed next steps, established a steering committee to synthesize the ideas and another day meeting date in late May. One group of teachers set a date to meet at a local restaurant to continue sharing.
This meeting represents many important activities building on now years of work and relationship building within schools, between university faculty and teachers. For the first time in Michigan schools are providing leadership for inclusive schooling rather than advocacy groups desperately wishing that schools would respond. The network links schools in Detroit, two suburbs, and a very rural schools district, illustrating the power and potential of work across the dividing lines of race and socio-economic status. Teachers have begun to reach out across schools to one another. All there were astounded by the power of action and commitment for children collectively represented.
We expect this network to grow and develop. But for now, the coming together of real leaders willing to risk, be creative, and step out of their boxes on behalf of children was simply a strong gust of fresh air.
Some Stories About Children That Made Us Cry
It's hard to recreate, because the most important part of any story was being in a room of 40 committed people who's pride was to share how they've been changing, learning, their schools have shifted, they've built culture of care and inclusion.
One child with autism was discussed several times. I'll call him Nat. He's in the first grade. Rose, a school psychologist, talked about her work with kids with autism and how she believed she was such an expert before, knew that kids needed to be in separate classes. Then she talked about Nat. The other day Nat had a problem in his class. He was OK but came out to talk with Rose and the speech therapist who were using 'social stories' to help him explore feelings and relationships. "How did you feel?" she asked. After a bit, Nat said, "I felt embarrassed." This surprised Rose to no end. "Why did you feel embarrassed?" she said. "Because I was yelling and screaming and no one else was", Nat said. Rose went on to say that in her previous segregated classes EVERYONE was yelling and screaming and NO ONE was embarrassed. Later in the session, a teacher from the early childhood center suddenly realized what specific child they were discussing. (Another story I don't remember was told.) She was amazed at his progress and started to choke up. "This is what real networking means!!" she said.
There were some more. About 'Wesley', a kindergartner, with lots of problems at home who was accidentally delivered to his house one day with no one home and burnt it down. I had personally visited the school the day after this happened and Wesley was wild, his eyes filled with a sense of unreality and terror. Yet, I was amazed, in this school, as I was there that day and have been other days. Literally every adult I met and talked to seemed to have an unwavering commitment that this wild child should stay in their school. Every adult, from aides to the speech therapist to numerous teachers. They just talked about this kid with concern and hope. At the time they had an aide assigned full-time who was doing simple work with him, just keeping him in school. I sat in the office of the principal who cried in fear that he would be transferred to another county where he surely would be placed in a segregated program for kids with emotional disturbance. This was all in November. Wesley is still at that school, still with support by an aide, but now in the kindergarten class full-time. The terror in his eyes has subsided and you can see the "great little boy he is coming out" to quote one of the teachers. In many schools I see teachers and principals filled with rage against such children. This school has built a culture of care and inclusion.
however, not so much the stories themselves that made people
"teary" and gave so much emotional impact to the day. What was so very powerful was that it was a group of educators sharing the stories -- people at all levels from district administrators to paraprofessionals, and from poor urban to wealthy suburban districts with some in between, all sorts of experiences as educators and as parents themselves. I think it was an emotionally moving day because there was such a sense that at last we were all having the "right" conversation, and with the "right" people (except that the parents were missing, except for a few who wear a professional hat, too). The commitment to the shared value of inclusion was so strong, and such a new experience to everyone present.