By Chris Busse
A few years ago, I accompanied my daughter on a WISH charter field trip to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. At the start of the day, we gathered in a large auditorium with her class and two or three classes of students from other schools. One of the kids in my daughter’s class has autism and uses noise as a way of interacting with his surroundings. Mid-presentation, this child clapped his hands together loudly and let out a sharp “Whoop!” All of the kids instantly turned and looked at this child, eyes and attention on him – not on the lecture.
Every child, that is, from schools other than WISH. All of the kids in my daughter’s class were laser-focused on the lecturer, not missing a word of the presentation. Without skipping a beat, one of the WISH kids sitting next to this child reached over and gently put her hand on his knee, squeezed it a little, and whispered his name to help focus, calm and share this time with him.
Because WISH is an “inclusive” school that educates students with disabilities in the same setting as typical peers, the typical students had dealt with these “distractions” before, and now they weren’t distractions at all. They weren’t even cause for much notice. The kids were there to learn, and learning is what took place.
When you hear about “inclusive” schools, you hear about the massive benefits they have for kids with special needs. While the importance of that cannot be overstated, there is an equally profound impact on typical students without special needs – like mine – that is often overlooked.
My two kids, ages 10 and 12, attended WISH charter in Westchester for five years. WISH is a nationally recognized leader in inclusive education and a model for which I believe all public schools should strive. WISH has small classrooms in which all kinds of learners with a variety of needs engage in activities together throughout the entire school day. No one is ever pulled out, singled out or excluded, no matter their learning style or the task at hand. And since WISH accepts kids on a true lottery basis, it has a racial, economic and special needs population that mirrors the diverse local population. This school includes everyone.
To enable this, WISH employs multiple specialists who make sure teachers have support and lessons that can be broadly inclusive. Additionally, kids with special needs have in-class helpers who are there to give them the attention and extra help they may require.
How did this help my typical kids? Their entire attitude toward people who are different from them was shaped by the values instilled by WISH, and it has carried over to the rest of their lives.
I saw this one night at my kids’ Judo class, when a new kid arrived – one who was fairly young and also quite disruptive to the normal routine. On our way home from class, a lively discussion of the new kid ensued, and my daughter, who was 10 at the time, concluded this: “He learns differently, and that’s OK. Everyone does.” My son, then-8, agreed. They continued to focus on making sure they got out of Judo what they needed to succeed.
I have dozens of more stories like these illustrating that my kids are fundamentally better people as a result of the time they spent learning in an inclusive environment at WISH.
They have more patience for other people. They don’t treat people differently just because they are different from them. They accept people for who they are. They are less self-conscious about what makes them different from other people. They are more able to focus on learning and less likely to be distracted while doing so. They each have friends that are special learners, and I mean real friends – ones with whom we go on vacation.
And this is true of essentially every child at WISH. The results are noticeable and impactful. There’s basically no bullying. Kids respect each other and include each other. To quote my children’s first grade teacher from WISH: “No one eats alone, no one plays alone.”
Think about the volume of the impact this has: There are roughly four special needs kids in a class who benefit from an inclusive environment, but there are 20 or so typical learners who learn how to be better, more focused, more tolerant people.
My kids now attend their neighborhood school in another district outside of Los Angeles Unified, but I am profoundly grateful for the time they spent at WISH.
My hope and belief is that my kids and all the kids from WISH will grow up to become adults with more understanding of the world around them as a result of the tolerance WISH models. And, by the way, I’ve also become a better person by being a parent of a child at WISH, too. My tolerance, compassion, and understanding all improved during my time there.
Is there anything more a parent could ask for?