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Volume 1 , Issue 3 Date: Spring, 2001 Topic: Community Membership

Inclusion: A Shared Leadership

by Bill Henderson

It became official in the spring of 1989. Parents of kids with disabilities like down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, and other developmental delays had demanded that it happen. They with their advocates had been arguing that their children under both federal and state laws had the right to attend regular classrooms in the “neighborhood” school. The School Department wanted to wait for a while, but the parents were tenacious. The Superintendent acquiesced and with his recommendation, the Boston School Committee decreed that the O’Hearn would become an inclusive school starting in September 1989.

A task force was formed consisting of existing O’Hearn staff along with parents and administrators designated by the School Department. It was decided that the inclusion would start that September in 2 kindergarten classrooms and then phase up through grade 5 in subsequent years. Staff already working at the O’Hearn could elect to stay or to transfer out to other schools. Four new teachers were hired, and I was appointed principal.

I did not have much professional experience with inclusion. My connection with inclusion, up until that point, was primarily personal. I have retinitis pigmentosa (RP). When I was younger, RP caused me to have slight difficulties with night vision. I had been assured though that my vision would not deteriorate until I was significantly older. While in my 20’s, I went to see a retina specialist who was utilizing some new testing equipment. After a long examination, the doctor called my wife and me into his chambers. He predicted that I was going to lose most of my vision in the next 5 - 15 years. He asked me what I did for a living. I responded that I was a middle school teacher. Then the eye specialist shocked me even more by telling me that I should get out of education.

Although there were times that I had my doubts and wondered whether I should follow the advice of the eye specialist, I continued teaching. Fortunately, I sought and came into contact with many others living with disabilities including individuals with vision impairments. From these connections, I learned that people with disabilities are involved in all walks / roles of life. Education was the career in which I wanted to work. In some ways I was searching for the same quest as the parents of students with disabilities who had lobbied for the O’Hearn - I was looking for a school where I, a person with a disability, could participate as an active member of a school community.

Currently the O’Hearn serves 220 students in early childhood through grade 5. Students are from diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. A majority of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Approximately 25% of the students have a disability and many of these are significant. Looking at the indicators of success used to rate schools in Boston, the O’Hearn has become one of the district’s higher performing schools. Student attendance is usually at or above 95%. Discipline problems resulting in office referrals or suspensions are relatively few. Over the past five years, students have consistently scored above the national median and near the top in the district on standardized tests. And under the Controlled Choice Assignment Plan, the school is highly popular and over subscribed. The O’Hearn has received widespread recognition for both inclusion and family involvement.

It was parent pressure that caused the School Board in Boston to decree that the O’Hearn would become an inclusive school. The parents whose children with significant disabilities were assigned that first year to the O’Hearn were a strong, vocal group who expected to be involved. How was the existing staff at the O’Hearn going to react to these active parents? In a survey given to teachers at the start of school that first year as to what they felt was needed to do to improve teaching and learning at the O’Hearn, teachers selected increasing family involvement as their number one priority. So a small task force of parents and staff was formed to strategize ways to promote more family involvement at the O’Hearn.

Soon after becoming an inclusive school, the O’Hearn opted to join School Based Management. Parent leaders would meet on a monthly basis with teacher representatives and the principal to make decisions around personnel, programs, and budget. The first responsibility of this School Site Council was to craft a mission statement for the school. Ideas were solicited from the entire school community. Teachers, other staff, parents, and students themselves wrote and drew pictures of whom the school should be for and what the school should do. The council then discussed all the entries, and, using a consensus process drafted the mission statement. Every year the council takes a look at the mission statement and sometimes minor revisions are made. But the school’s commitment to inclusion has been steadfast as articulated in the current mission statement below.

The Patrick O'Hearn is a small elementary school serving children from early childhood through grade 5. Our students are from diverse ethnic, linguistic and ability backgrounds. We are an inclusive school. Students who are involved in regular education; students who have mild, moderate and severe disabilities; and students considered talented and gifted learn together and from each other. Teachers and support staff team to work with all children in integrated classrooms.

The overall goal of our school is to help all students learn and succeed. We are committed to helping each child develop intellectually, socially, emotionally, physically to his/her fullest potential. O’Hearn students will learn skills, increase their knowledge, and develop positive values. They will demonstrate growth in confidence, capabilities, and character.

At the O'Hearn, we use and adapt Boston’s Citywide Learning Standards. Teachers and support staff strive to create stimulating and challenging learning environments that are sensitive to students’ needs and learning styles. Our focus is literacy. We expect O’Hearn students to read at or above grade level or to achieve the goals stipulated in their individual education plans. The arts and technology are utilized extensively at the O’Hearn to enhance students’ learning and performances.

We at the O’Hearn view education as an ongoing and collaborative process. Family members are very involved at the O’Hearn. We have a Family Center and a family Outreach program. Parent and teacher representatives work together on school Based Management. Staff is involved in extensive professional development activities. Students serve as peer tutors and as community helpers. Many participate in after school enrichment programs. We also work closely with local universities, businesses, cultural agencies, and neighborhood organizations to do the utmost to benefit our students.

Teachers and other staff at the O’Hearn have provided critical leadership and expertise for implementing inclusion. In order to be successful, inclusion must evolve in the context of general education curriculum and regular school routines. Veteran teachers who had been working at the O’Hearn before inclusion adapted instructional strategies and materials to accommodate students with disabilities. They learned how to collaborate effectively with new teachers, therapists, and arts specialists. And they have dedicated many extra hours to work with parents, consultants, and volunteers to plan and implement an excellent educational program for students with and without disabilities.

By no means is the O’Hearn a perfect school. There remain many growth areas, many of which are highlighted in the annual Whole School Improvement Plan. What makes the school strong in its quest for excellence is the committed partnership. Teachers and other staff, parents, and the principal all believe that the O’Hearn can and should be a high quality inclusive school. Together we will continue to work towards on-going improvements and excellence for all our students.

Bill HendersonBill Henderson has been an educator in Boston for 28 years. Bill holds a B.A from Yale University, a M.A. from Goddard College, and Ed.D. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Since 1989, Bill has served as principle at the O’Hearn. He has also presented extensively at conferences and for school systems and Universities.

The Patrick O’Hearn is a small, urban elementary school serving children from diverse ethnic, linguistic, and ability backgrounds from early childhood through grade 5. The O’Hearn has earned national recognition as an excellent inclusive school. Students who are involved in regular education, students who have mild, moderate, and severe disabilities, and students considered talented and gifted learn together and from each other.

When not working, Bill enjoys exercising, gardening, playing the saxophone, reading and spending time with family and friends.

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