I would not join a country club that didn’t allow black people.
I would not participate in a social organization that didn’t accept Jews.
And I would not let either of my children attend a school that excludes people with disabilities.
Of course, I’m not really the country club type, and an anti-Semitic group wouldn’t even let me in the door, but those are not the reasons why I would avoid such institutions.
On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the ideals of equality and inclusion come to mind. It occurs to me those principles are not always as easy to practice as snubbing an elitist golf community or an inappropriately discriminatory group.
In fact, I recently visited a school that does not take kids who have special needs for my older son to potentially go to.
In picking an elementary education for Elijah, it is my self-imposed parental duty to investigate all options for him so that his needs as well as our family’s values (safety, sense of belonging, respect…) would be supported in the best way possible. For many significant reasons, it’s important for my children to attend the same school together, but my boys are so different, and I don’t want to sell one out for the other’s requirements and promise.
Raphael is in the perfect setting for him: a nearby public school that he loves and is thriving at. He was placed there by the Early Education Department of our school district based on his needs. We love it, but his older brother wasn’t admitted because it is not our neighborhood school, and it’s too popular to open enroll into.
Although Raphael is the one with disabilities and medical fragility, Elijah’s needs seem more challenging. He is loud and quiet, bold and introspective, sweet and irrational, curious and imaginative, troubled and free. His language skill and ability to abstract and connect information is beyond any child I’ve met at his age. He is intensely physical and naturally athletic. He throws a ball with precision and surprising force. He is typically the highest, riskiest climber of his playmates.
Where Raphael is carefree about how hard things might be for him (such as staying upright for too long), Elijah has a meltdown when things (such as scaling a 15-foot rock wall) are not easy peasey lemon squeezey, as he would say.
Elijah is in a private K-12 alternative school, steeped in actively democratic principles. The program speaks to me and Greg, but it is relatively new, and democracy can be a long messy process. Especially for a 5-year-old to wade through and possibly waste that precious year when most kindergartners are focusing on writing their name and practicing phonics and coloring. Our boy is disinterested in those things at school, so he builds with Lego blocks and watches tornado videos on YouTube instead.
Often, Eli’s school day looks chaotic with free-range kids of all ages calling one another names, interrupting teachers, climbing trees instead of participating in a visitor’s offering, and trying to sort out how whoever-may-be-listening feels every time someone yells or punches someone in the head.
Don’t get me wrong. There are terrific things about my son’s school (including the chaos, actually) and now that it’s January, classroom dynamics are (finally) starting to gel. I love that Elijah’s teachers model true respect, and they believe that children know what they need. I can’t tell you what it meant that the director asked me to send Elijah’s little brother there because his being different would add so much to the community. (Yes, I cried.) I am committed to the practice of democracy I see at Elijah’s school for his sake, and honestly, for that of the world.
But my child has picked up a lot of troubling behavior, and though he is learning, I wonder if it’s the right things. I wonder when everyone’s needs are trying to be met, can someone’s needs too easily go unnoticed?
So just to check out all options and ensure that the faithful leap I took in sending him to The Patchwork School is still the right one for next year, I looked at another local school that provides an exceptional amount of outside time, the freedom to choose for oneself, and opportunities for real collaboration and self-expression. The potential school is more academically rigorous than our current choice. It has more structure, and the kids are kind. Name-calling (my trigger!) is not allowed.
A friend’s son goes there and adores it. I am completely thrilled for her family. After an open-house presentation last week, I felt jazzed about this other school. The director there said all the right things and has more than a decade of proof behind her.
But something was bugging me.
I had heard that after experimenting a few years ago with a child or two with some type of learning disability (or maybe it was a behavioral issue), the school I was trying on had decided not to accept kids with special needs.
It certainly has that right. Unlike public schools, private institutions do not legally have to provide a “free and appropriate public education” to people of all abilities. Even public charter or so-called focus schools are able to skirt that requirement.
I get that a school with limited resources needs to ensure that the families it takes fit. I get that families choose such a discerning school to give their child the education they desire.
Still, I had to hear it with my own ears. After talking about a space for Elijah, I asked the director if there might also be a place in the future for my younger child, the one who has Down syndrome.
“No…” she said.
I don’t remember what else this smiling, gentle lady said because what I silently heard was this:
“We don’t want your child. We don’t even know him, or know what his needs are, but it doesn’t matter. We don’t care what he can do. We just assume there are things he can’t do, and that he won’t fit in. We choose not to find a way to make it work. We are afraid we would have to make an extra effort. If we had the resources to support your son, somebody else’s child would miss out. This is not the place for just anybody. We don’t take that kind.”
Later that night, I told my friend and her husband that the school seemed wonderful for Eli. It did! But I had reservations and was weighing pros and cons. At that moment, I couldn’t yet articulate that I just cannot participate in something that is not inclusive.
I mentioned that the school seemed “elitist.” My friends countered that it wasn’t a community of wealthy snobbery. Indeed, that isn’t what I meant.
They suggested that the school was merely being “selective.” Seems reasonable, right?
Of course, parents should be able to select the right school for their child. Being in a selective environment has many favorable attributes. I could see my own older boy doing well in such a place. I want so much opportunity for him in his life – in both my children’s lives. How could I condemn people for wanting to give their kids the best advantages they can find?
But… there’s a but. I chewed on the word “selective” for days. I still don’t think that’s quite the adjective I meant.
This morning while pulling up my jeans, it popped into mind: exclusive.
The definition of “selective” is “tending to choose carefully” or “discriminating.”
“Exclusive” means “excluding or not admitting other things.” In a school setting, it may mean excluding certain students – for whatever, perhaps justifiable, reason.
And though the school I looked at is being selective, it is, in fact, also being exclusive.
I simply cannot subscribe to that. For my family, school must be inclusive.
When I made that announcement this morning, Greg agreed. Later he texted me: “Inclusion is not just an important ideal. It is a practice. Let’s always choose it.”
I believe most of us do our best to be inclusion-minded in the everyday. We leave the handicapped spaces for those whose mobility is unlike the majority. We welcome the brilliance some people with autism bring. We help people who are blind across the street and think nothing of our kids playing with a child who wears hearing aids, or leg braces, or a helmet in case of seizures. We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. for helping make civil rights exist for people of all color.
But I don’t think most of us really understand that including some while excluding others is not truly inclusive.
Two weeks of diversity training at work, fulfilling the cross-cultural course requirement in college, or joining the “Celebrating our Differences Day” in our kid’s classroom are lip service. As is feeling just fine with people of different abilities being entitled to a public education.
Inclusion is more than that. It is actively seeking out ways to make our daily life not so exclusive.
When parents choose a highly selective school for their precious one, they are choosing exclusion. They may be choosing many wonderful values and opportunities for their child; they may be selecting the perfect fit, but they are also actively choosing non-inclusiveness.
They are choosing no chance that their child’s best school chum could be a kid with dyslexia. They are allowing no opportunity for their child to spend his days with someone with ADHD, or cerebral palsy, or cognitive impairment or dozens of other differences that normal people naturally have.
Kids will inherently miss out on something no matter what parents choose, but in the case of selecting a school that excludes, the choice is for their child to miss out on deeply experiencing the great value in inclusiveness.
To really, truly get what it means to foster inclusion is to not just accept it but to immerse oneself in it. It’s not easy to make differences not matter. One must simultaneously distinguish and ignore. It may be uncomfortable. But it is a beautifully rich, rewarding pursuit.
It’s what I select for my children by choosing an inclusive education for them. It will benefit both of them – and I think, that will benefit everyone else who gets to learn alongside them.