Back in September, I wrote about the definition and practice of community (http://www.oacs.org/2017/on-being-in-community/). Schools were just starting their new year, and I was just starting to get to know the stories from several of your communities. I appreciate the time and the trust given with stories to me from families, staff, and administration. I have heard both determination and frustration with helping students with exceptional needs thrive rather than just survive. More than once, I have listened to a family’s sorrow in feeling ostracized by a Christian school community, and I have sensed a teacher’s ache in wanting to reach a student who seems beyond help.
Ontario’s school systems, publicly-funded as well as non-publicly funded, are faced with the tremendous task of helping all kids thrive. Forced inclusion with little to no forethought will only harm a school community, including families and staff, yet refusing or ignoring those students with exceptional needs also has long-term negative impacts. Given the significant challenges, how does a school community express the inclusive vision of belonging?
January is a good time to reflect and reconsider the goals set in September. While respecting the direction your school has chosen for this school year, I want to offer some additional thoughts for consideration. The following questions have morphed from conversations and experiences thus far with this role as a Communities of Belonging Liaison:
- How do we refer to our students with exceptional needs? Does our student support program and accompanying language add to the stigma of needing help, or does it express universal design, that all of us need help at some point? Do we separate the gifted program from the resource program? Can we consider pulling all the supports together and referencing them as Student Support Services?
- Have we talked as a school board, as a school community and with our supporting churches about an inclusive vision of belonging – and how that is reflected in our tuition structure, our budget plans, and our greater school culture?
- Are we afraid to welcome atypical students into our typical community schools?
- If we aren’t afraid to welcome any and all inquiring families, are we just as eager to work at being appropriately prepared for these students and their families?
- Though a school community appreciates an increase in enrollment, welcoming a child with complex behavioural issues might require more resources than what is currently available. How do we say, “No, not yet” instead of “No” to an inquiring family?
- When was the admissions policy last reviewed? Does it include the specifics on what parents and staff will covenant in accordance with the best interest of the child?
- What have we learned from our previous experiences with families – both positive and negative – that can prompt us to do differently moving forward?
It is not easy to wrestle through these questions.
To work towards that inclusive vision of belonging, we need to think through and share best practice of what it means to do school with an ever-changing population of children whose needs will never be completely understood – but must be loved. This call to love is not just policy-prescribed, but more importantly, supernaturally charged by God, our Creator. Through this love, we see the needs related to disability not as an abnormality or a tragedy but as part of our understanding of the beauty of human diversity and the incredible spectrum from which God reveals himself (words summarized from the writings of John Swinton).
I welcome your feedback (firstname.lastname@example.org), and my future posts and emails will explore these questions in greater detail.