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
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,
The second step is to make a serious commitment to professional
Teachers need to be well trained; classrooms have to be well
a continual effort. . . . It's a huge endeavor. But when we
this well, it reinforces all of the wrong stereotypes about kids
with disabilities. The failure of inclusion is never a failure
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
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
Q: What do you see as the greatest benefits of whole-school
A: When all of the ingredients come together, it is something
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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