*was published earlier: http://www.christiancourier.ca/columns-op-ed/entry/cheers-to-a-new-year
This school year marks a change for our family. It is our youngest daughter Janneke’s first year in her community school; she is entering Grade 4 at Beacon Christian School in St. Catharines. Prior to this year, she attended Niagara Children’s Centre School, a small school connected with our local children’s treatment (rehabilitation) centre, Niagara Children’s Centre. The school authority is one of six schools in the province of Ontario mandated by the Education Act and is part of Ontario’s Ministry of Education.
Niagara Children's Centre School is unique. It welcomes and works with children who have exceptional needs; the students are specifically chosen to attend the school, and the program is intentional, providing intensive support with the students' progress. Rachel and Janneke each had four great years there, with one of those years overlapping - making it a total of seven amazing years.
Unlike other schools that desire to educate for a number of years (preschool-8; K-12), this school is meant to be a temporary stop in the journey of learning. Some children are in the school for one year, and other children remain for several years. The tears of the departing families on the last day are clear indicators of the fear and concern parents have for their children who will be transitioning into a larger school setting. Some of our community schools are well-equipped to welcome children of diverse needs, and some schools are not so prepared.
A question to be answered
I am often asked what Rachel and Janneke actually do in school, particularly as it relates to the 3 r’s: reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. How do my non-verbal, severely disabled, cognitively-delayed children do school?
I believe the answer to this question is found in how we view education. If we see education as a measured pursuit of academic excellence with independent and economically-skilled youth as the outcome, then children like mine do not belong. The space is limited to the survival of the fittest.
If we see education as a lifelong journey with our school experience providing a unique opportunity to live and learn in community, to cultivate interdependence rather than independence, then children like mine belong. The space is safe, generous and welcoming.
Thriving however they grow
Creating communities of belonging in our schools is a good thing. I love the variety of public and private community schools in my region. I wish for all these schools to be accessible to families with special needs and for these schools to find ways to collaborate when it comes to kids with special needs. Helping kids thrive however they grow and wherever they go is a very good idea - and it is also a very biblical idea.
Part of the transition for Janneke from her old school to Beacon Christian included a class visit this past June. Janneke’s soon-to-be classmates from Beacon came to Niagara Children’s Centre School to learn more about Janneke. When the students filed into her classroom, Janneke immediately started moving through the school in her walker, and the students chose to follow her. As they told me later, "Mrs. Pot, she's a great tour guide! She showed us her whole school!"
Where everyone knows your name
I am trusting that the next step for Janneke at Beacon Christian will be a good fit. Though I can only guess at what she might be thinking and processing, I know she knew Niagara Children’s Centre School to be a safe place where she belonged. She loved exploring the school in her walker, and she had many schoolmates call out her name in the hallway every day.
This coming school year will include a lot of watch-and-wait and let’s-try-this and see-if-this-works. Admittedly, I am nervous about the classmates’ reaction to Janneke’s drool and loud hollers. I remind myself that it didn’t take long before Rachel’s peers adjusted and then were quick to defend Rachel’s unique abilities to visitors. My hope is that Janneke will confidently explore the hallways of her new school, that students will know her by name, and will feel safe and welcomed.
For she is not on her own, but she belongs….