Learning Lessons: Meaningful inclusion in West Chester 

Voice: March 2015 

This story is part of a regular series, “Learning Lessons: Great ideas, great schools,’’ that features educators who individually or collectively are doing great things or conducting great programs in Pennsylvania’s public schools.

When children enter kindergarten, they are open to so many possibilities. They meet other children, make new friends, and rarely stop to question why some students may be different from others.

At Sarah Starkweather Elementary School in West Chester, a team of teachers is taking advantage of this early opportunity. The school launched the Multiple Disabilities Support Program in 2011 to include students with special needs in regular education classrooms. Today, students with differing abilities are learning side by side and forming lasting friendships along the way. 

The key is reaching kids at a young age, said kindergarten teacher Jennifer D’Antonio. “They don’t even notice student differences in kindergarten; they just say ‘this is my friend,’” she said.

Meaningful inclusion
D’Antonio and first-grade teacher Nicole Faggiola teamed up to launch the MDS program at Starkweather four years ago. It started as a joint effort between the West Chester Area School District and the Chester County Intermediate Unit, with assistance from the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network, or PaTTAN.

In the first year, the teachers surveyed the school staff about perceptions of students with disabilities and trained them in using people-first language.

In the second year, the school took ownership of the program, and more classroom teachers got involved. The program includes students with special needs in regular education classrooms based on the goals of each student's Individualized Education Program, or IEP.

“As a team, we have worked very hard to have the students included as much as possible, to have it be meaningful inclusion, to build that community, to teach acceptance,” Faggiola said.

Today, there are seven students, from kindergarten to fourth grade, who participate in the MDS program at Starkweather. Their teachers say the benefits extend well beyond those students to hundreds of others across the school community.

“We want to teach all of our students in the school to accept one another, to be kind, to form friendships with all different people in their lives,” said Maryann McEvoy, Starkweather's MDS teacher. 

Be flexible and collaborate
D’Antonio, Faggiola, and other teachers in the MDS program say the experience has helped them become better teachers.

McEvoy meets weekly with teachers, aides, and specialists who work with MDS students to collaborate on the needed accommodations for upcoming lessons. Teachers also meet monthly for long-term planning. 

Accommodating all students in the classroom has allowed second-grade teacher Susan Jackson to “really look at the way we are addressing all the needs in the classroom. This helps us think about our goals, what we want as teachers for the children.”

When working with MDS students, teachers say flexibility is key.

“I've learned that I need to be very, very flexible in how I teach, that I need to be willing to change what I'm doing even if it's at a moment's notice to make sure that my students are learning in a way that is most valuable to them,” D'Antonio said.

Lasting friendships
Last year, McEvoy and the inclusion team launched the Buddy Program to give students an opportunity to interact and have fun with MDS students in a more informal setting. Each grade sends two kids toward the end of the school day to McEvoy's classroom to play a game or participate in a project with the MDS students for about 20 minutes.

On a January afternoon, students joined their MDS friends to paint a Papier-mâché elephant made from recyclables collected at the school. McEvoy said it was part of an art project the students planned to enter into a contest hosted by the Philadelphia Zoo. 

The students who visit her classroom “know exactly where to go,” McEvoy said. “On days where we don't have particular things set up for them to do, they know exactly where my game cabinet is, and they pull out their favorite games.”

What's next?
Since its launch in 2011, the MDS program has grown steadily each year. Fourth-grade teacher Lindsay Keosayian, who is new to the program this year, said her students have embraced classroom inclusion.

“They love it,” she said. “They want to get involved. They get excited to include all the students as much as possible. And they've been learning from each other as well.”

Teachers said they hope the program will continue to expand in the years ahead, ultimately reaching every grade level and classroom at Starkweather.

“One thing we can all agree on is it does work,” Jackson said. “It’s not easy, but it absolutely works, and it’s amazing to watch.”

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