The Little Preschool That Could: An Inclusion Journey

At its recent fundraiser, a small school accomplished a huge feat. Almost 200 parents and staff members who attended the event donated $30,000 to support the inclusion of children with special needs at Cherry Preschool. As the preschool's recently retired founding director, I could not be prouder of this amazing school and its step by step journey to become a truly caring community that embraces the 10-12 percent of its 235 children who have special needs.

Like all journeys, this one began 22 years ago with a small first step. Having a handicap accessible ramp when the preschool was created literally opened the door for children with physical disabilities, which is what we envisioned at first. During the summer before its grand opening in 1992, however, a parent asked if she could enroll her son who was diagnosed with autism. All she wanted was for him to be in a classroom with typical kids, even if he couldn't participate.  She assured us he would not be difficult or disruptive. Of course, I said yes, and the teachers agreed it was the least our new school could do for this family.

We soon recognized that just being there was not the same as being included. This was truly the least we could do. The teachers and I wanted to do more, so we began to develop a program to ensure that future children with special needs participated in a meaningful way rather than just pushing a car back and forth alone on the rug.

The seeds of Cherry Preschool's Inclusion Program were present when we accepted that first child with special needs. Cherry wanted to be a community in which parents and staff collaborated to create a totally child-friendly environment in which all children were respected and cherished for who they were. We wanted to teach children to feel good about themselves and to appreciate others who were different from themselves. From day one, we wanted to include everyone -- children with special needs and families with financial needs. Maybe it was a bit of a utopian vision, but it was heartfelt and came from having to examine what really mattered when starting our own school.

Like The Little Engine That Could, we hitched ourselves to this vision and "slowly, slowly, slowly started off." We told ourselves, "I think I can. I think I can. I think I can."

By enrolling the little boy with autism our first year, we had followed the words of Martin Luther King, "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase." We took our next step without having any idea what was at the top of the staircase. I hired Rhonda Cohen to work as a vastly overqualified Inclusion Aide in one classroom with two children who had special needs. Then we took one more step and enrolled more children, with Rhonda supporting them in two more classrooms and also serving as a consultant for our program as a whole. This model worked until we ran out of Rhondas. By 1997, there were so many children who wanted to enroll and so few spaces that we took a giant leap of faith and made Rhonda the administrator of our Inclusion Program, hiring classroom aides to work under her guidance.

From there, it was just a few more steps to realize we could serve even more children if we carefully balanced their needs, added a second aide to some classrooms, and had two children share an aide when appropriate. Step by step, our inclusion model grew to its current ability to serve an average of 25-30 children with identified special needs annually (10-12 percent of our population), with children in almost every classroom. A support group for the parents of these children was an additional big step. Yes, we were giving them the opportunity to talk about their feelings. A greater benefit, however, was their ability to help and support one another. And for Cherry Preschool, the group was the source of ideas to improve our program and expand our outreach.

The families of our typically developing children embraced the program and fundraised to support it. Early on, we decided to staff it ourselves rather than have the families using the program also provide the support by attending with their children or finding their own aides. This decision created teams of teachers and aides working together to ensure the children with special needs were part of the classroom community.

Cherry Preschool's Inclusion Program is now at the core of the school's identity. In recent years at the school's annual auction/fundraiser, we conducted a live auction for donations to the Inclusion Program. Those attending the event were asked to donate money to fund inclusion so we could continue to serve children with special needs. Amazingly, these generous families and friends of the preschool donated $30,000 this year.

In the words of Cherry Preschool's Inclusion Director, Rhonda Cohen,

At Cherry Preschool, there are many families whose lives took an alternate path when their child was born with or later diagnosed with some special need. What would you do if you were told that your child will have seizures that may affect her development or had cognitive delays that may impact her ability to learn or was found to lack the ability to communicate or might never walk or talk or see or hear like other children?

You would be sad beyond words, you would get angry, you would grieve. And then that deep, intense love you have for your child would force every fiber of your being to focus on giving her the life you'd always planned she'd have. A life filled with opportunities that would allow her to grow to reach her full potential, a potential that no doctor, therapist or book can define or limit.

Reaching that potential means going to school just like every other child. It means finding a school that doesn't say, "Your child doesn't belong here," but rather a school that says, "Welcome, you're home."

Thanks to your generosity at last year's fundraiser, we were able to provide that support for close to 30 children with special needs this year. But, we know it's not just your ability to write a check that has allowed our Inclusion Program to succeed and continue year after year. It's your compassion and sense of social justice that enables you to put yourselves in other people's shoes and decide that you will care about their children as you would your own...That is the kind of world we all want to live in, and that is why you've joined the Cherry Preschool community, because that is what we do. We care for one another.

In the 22 years since Cherry Preschool took that tiny first step, over 200 children with special needs have come up that ramp, been part of our community, enriched all of our lives, and remained in our hearts.

While all programs are different, I urge you to take the leap of faith and start climbing the staircase. Like the little blue engine, when you get to the top, you will say with pride, "I thought I could."

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This post originally appeared on ChicagoNow, Feb. 17, 2014.