The Ideal School: Where The In Thing is Inclusion [ Part I in a new series on making change ]
Have you heard about The Ideal School of Manhattan – a school created by a group of parents whose vision of learning is truly all-inclusive? Not only does the school welcome students with special needs (25 percent of the spaces in the school are reserved for such students): it's become one of the most popular and most respected schools in New York City, period. There's a waiting list for spots -- this despite the fact that tuition costs $32,000 US per student per year.
The Ideal School is a rare gem. It's not unusual for kids with special needs (particularly those that manifest themselves as behavioral issues) to end up moving from one private school to another as they repeatedly wear out their welcome. If the parents of the other children at a school have been sold a round-peg-only vision for that school and your child is obviously a square peg, there may be subtle (and then not-so-subtle) pressure on you and your child to start acting like a round beg or move on.
That's what makes the Ideal School's policy of welcoming a variety of different-shaped pegs -- or children -- stand out in such a positive way. This is what education should be like -- and yet in both the public and private system, too often the reality falls far short of the Ideal. The public system is underfunded; the private system tends to be too exclusive, with administrators trying to perpetuate an alternative vision of what an educational utopia should be like -- an educational environment that may not include a classmate who is struggling with a behavioral problem.
Maybe that's what well-meaning parents and administrators think they should be protecting Johnny from -- anything that could distract Johnny from learning -- but creating an artificial learning environment -- one that doesn't reflect the reality of the real world -- isn't providing that child with much of an education. Sure, the child may master his times tables a little more quickly, but as for learning important life-lessons in tolerance, acceptance of differences, and getting along with all kinds of people -- those lessons kind of get lost along the way if every child in the classroom is uniformly mainstream.
The benefits of inclusion are powerful and well-documented. As the Ideal School website notes:
"Students, both with and without special needs, benefit academically from the teaching strategies and classroom adaptations employed, such as personalized lesson plans, activity-based learning, differentiated instruction, peer mentoring, cooperative group learning, and the use of instructional technology. As students have positive experiences with children with special needs, they become more appreciative of differences, have an enhanced awareness of fairness and equality, and improved self-images. An inclusive education provides each student with an excellent academic foundation and empowers each child to succeed in a truly diverse society with self-confidence, acceptance, and compassion."
So what does this mean in practical terms? By the time they graduate, students at the Ideal School will have learned that we all have unique strengths and abilities to share with one another -- which means that none of us have to strive to be perfect. What a liberating message to pass along to kids from privileged families who might otherwise feel pressured to build upon the legacies of generations of over-achievers. Instead of perpetually focusing inward on what they themselves should be achieving, those students can celebrate the achievements of other classmates.
It's bold thinking like this -- thinking that is born of the dreams of parents who want something better for their kids -- that has the potential to change the world, one kid, one school, and one neighborhood at a time.
Obviously, the cost of this particular option makes this particular solution, as presented, unaffordable to all but a select few. That's not what I'm suggesting we build upon here. What I'm suggesting is that we borrow the vision -- the idea that parents can solve problems by engaging in innovative, forget-the-way-we've-always-done-things thinking and by working together. That's a model that's worked time and time again: grassroots parenting initiatives driven by genuine need and parent passion. It's a pretty unbeatable recipe for making change.