Could we finally be seeing some education justice for disabled students? School systems have been struggling with how to integrate disabled children for decades. Historically, many disabled students weren’t provided with access to education at all, under the assumption that they weren’t able to learn, or wouldn’t benefit from education. That started to shift in the later half of the 20th century thanks to pressure from the disability rights movement, with a focus on special education and mainstreaming of students who wanted to participate in classrooms with their nondisabled peers.
In New York City, an innovative educational project has provided yet another way of looking at disability education, and it could be worth a close look. The IDEAL School has taken educational diversity to the next level, focusing on creating a totally inclusive school environment that reflects the broad demographics of its New York City home while also providing a range of services to ensure that each student’s needs are individually met. The school was founded by a group of parents concerned about their educational options, and it’s starting to attract attention.
A number of things make the IDEAL School stand out, including a commitment to community service, breaking down achievement gaps and providing students with a comprehensive education designed to help them be good global citizens. For disabled students, the school offers something special, without singling them out, and that’s a rare thing to find in an educational setting.
Each student at the IDEAL School proceeds at her, or his, own pace, using a custom-adapted curriculum. This reflects the fact that children learn at different paces and may have different learning styles, and that this applies not just to disabled students, but also to their nondisabled peers. By providing every student with the same careful attention, the school ensures that no child falls through the cracks, while still making disabled students feel included, rather than just tolerated or accommodated in the school environment.
Those who need speech therapy, physical therapy, tutoring, or other disability-specific instruction have a chance to pursue it during elective periods, rather than being pulled out of regular academic classes to do so. This also creates a feeling of inclusion and solidarity with peers, as disabled students are treated just like everyone else. They don’t miss out on valuable class and peer-bonding time, and they aren’t singled out for attention, which can make them feel like outsiders instead of members of the student body.
Inclusivity at the IDEAL School extends not just to disabled students but also to students of color, low-income students and other students from marginalized backgrounds. Real results, including a school where students value each other and provide support, encouragement and advocacy for each other across boundaries, are already starting to show, and that’s a major accomplishment in an education system struggling with class, race and ability disparities across the country.
Can the IDEAL School model be replicated? It benefits from being an independent private school with a small student body, which allows it to fall under different rules. Unlike large public schools, it’s not struggling to provide services on a limited per-pupil budget, with accompanying problems like crowding, high student/teacher ratios, a heavy focus on test scores and a lack of evidence-based practices in the classroom. Instead, the IDEAL School values students, teachers and parents: something the public school systems needs to be able to do in order to achieve true educational reform.
That means we need more money for education, to fund teacher training and pay, school facilities, student programs and more. It’s time to listen to teachers who have suggestions for improving education, not administrators and officials with no education experience. And we need more of a commitment to the value of education for all students, because the inclusivity model at the IDEAL School shouldn’t look as radical as it does.
Photo credit: Bill Tyne