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Article of Interest - Inclusion

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Bridges4Kids LogoInclusion at the Heart of His School
The Boston Globe, December 12, 2004
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Joe Petner, in his 15th year as the principal of the Haggerty School in Cambridge, is a pioneer of whole-school inclusion, which integrates children with disabilities into all aspects of school life. In an interview with Globe correspondent Ashley Pettus, Petner discusses the ingredients needed to make the inclusive school ideal a reality.

Q: It seems that there are many possible interpretations of inclusion that may pass the letter, but not the spirit, of the federal law on educating people with disabilities. How do you define inclusion?

A: When I go out and talk to people about our experience I usually begin by saying that "inclusion is an easy thing to do poorly." I have visited schools in which the definition of inclusion is that there is a handicapped youngster who is physically present in the classroom, and that is the extent of the child's being included. My definition has two critical elements: first, that the child is truly a member of the classroom community, meaning that the other kids know who the child is and have meaningful relationships with him. Second, the child is part of the learning community. So if the class is working on the lifecycle of the butterfly, the child is involved in that science curriculum in some way. It's not simply about supporting kids with disabilities; it's about building a community that is inclusive. And there's a difference.

Q: Do you think the Haggerty model is replicable?

A: I do think it's replicable, and in fact, it's required by law. But, again, inclusion is an easy thing to do poorly. When you embark on this effort you need to begin by asking yourself: What are your beliefs about people, about children, about the capabilities and possibilities for learning for everyone? It's not about a school; it's about a set of core values. And those values are that everyone is different, everyone belongs. If you don't fully believe this, you will never act on it. So the initial stage is building a commitment to these values on the part of everyone in the school community -- teachers, parents, administrators, students.

The second step is to make a serious commitment to professional development. Teachers need to be well trained; classrooms have to be well supported. It's a continual effort. . . . It's a huge endeavor. But when  we don't do this well, it reinforces all of the wrong stereotypes about kids with disabilities. The failure of inclusion is never a failure of the kids: It's a failure of a school system to provide the quality of effort necessary to ensure that it goes well.

Q: How can parents determine whether a school is going to be truly inclusive of their child?

A: I think parents need to get in there and see what the commitment is. They should go out on the playground and see what recess looks like. We had a child here two years ago who was a double amputee. And every day he was out there playing soccer. He had no sense that he couldn't play like all the other kids. And the kids would never accept him sitting out. They wanted him on their team. When you see that, you know the commitment is very genuine. It's not staged.

Q: How should parents best advocate for their child? Is it good to be pushy?

A: Yes, absolutely. The kids who do best are those whose parents ask the most questions and push the hardest. Schools need to listen to parents and not become defensive, because parents know their child so much more than we do. My advice to parents is to become as knowledgeable as they can about their rights and about their child's particular disability. They should network with other families and get involved in local parents groups. It can be very scary and isolating to have a child with a disability. Fortunately, the Boston area is incredibly resource rich, and parents should take full advantage of all the supports available.

Q: What do you see as the greatest benefits of whole-school inclusion?

A: When all of the ingredients come together, it is something wonderful to see. In fact, I believe that the kids in our school would think it odd if there were not kids who were differently abled alongside them. They have come to expect that as the norm. And their experience now will shape them in the future, as parents and as individuals in the work force and in society. That's the greater good of this effort.


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