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SHAWN DOHERTY | The Capital Times


Posted: Tuesday, September 14, 2010


It is 8:30 on a crisp September morning, the start of a busy day for preschoolers at the Waisman Center’s Early Childhood Program, a nationally renowned laboratory school.


At a piano in the gym, a teacher holds a 4-year-old named Michael in her lap and helps him tap out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” She speaks to him using both sign language and a singsong voice. Several other boys driving toy cars swerve around another teacher doing duty as traffic cop. A student teacher is coloring at a table with students. In a corner of the gym, two girls are playing house. “This is your bed, Baby Kitty. Go to sleep right NOW!” one of them says. A tiny child with big brown eyes, named Caroline, curls up on a mat and pretends to sleep.


Michael, distracted by the noisy traffic behind him, wriggles out of Kerri Lynch’s lap and runs up to the boys in cars, making guttural sounds. The boys ignore him and continue to whiz past. Lynch waves down an especially energetic driver in a red T-shirt who has snagged the school’s popular police car. “Michael is talking to you,” she says, holding Michael, who is clearly becoming frustrated. She puts Michael’s face between her hands gently so that he makes eye contact with the other child and encourages him to try to speak again. The other boy listens carefully as the teacher translates: “Michael is wondering when he can have a turn?”


The boy in the red T-shirt grins, holds up his hand to sign five minutes and offers a verbal promise. “In five minutes!” he says, before taking off again in the car.


Five minutes later, with some prodding from Lynch, the driver gets out of the car and stands next to it, hollering. “It’s your turn, Michael!” he shouts several times. “It’s your turn!” Michael, now pretending to put gas in another car on the other side of the room, is oblivious. “I don’t think he can hear you,” the teacher says. “You’ll have to come over here.” Again, she facilitates the conversation. “Say thank you!” she tells Michael, who happily climbs into the vehicle.


When it is time to clean up and Michael is asked to put away the car, he lies down on a mat, confused, and puts his hands over his ears. Before Lynch needs to intervene, a classmate rushes to the rescue. “I’ll park it for him!” she says, putting the car away.


The kindness and patience shown by these preschoolers as their teachers help them to negotiate their way is all the more remarkable given that several of them, including Michael and Caroline, who have Down syndrome, are special-needs students, a population that is just now being truly integrated — however imperfectly — into public schools.


“One of the reasons I love to work with this age is because of their innate empathy,” says Lynch, who has taught at Waisman for nearly two decades now. “These children know that kids are different and might need help and they don’t ostracize them for it. I just wish we could bottle that sensitivity up and keep it forever.”


That is exactly what the Waisman Early Childhood Program (WECP) has been trying to do ever since it opened in 1979 with a mission to educate children with disabilities. Today the program’s six classrooms enroll around 85 children between the ages of 1 and 6, 20 to 30 percent of them with special needs that range from Down syndrome to autism disorders. It wins national kudos for its practice of what educators call inclusion, the belief that children with special needs can and should be integrated with typically developing children in regular classrooms, as opposed to segregated in “special education” classes.


Over the past two decades the ideal of inclusion has gained traction thanks to federal and state legislation upholding the rights of young children with disabilities to be educated in the least restrictive setting possible. But as practiced in many public school districts, even those valiantly committed to the approach, it has also provoked skepticism from critics who wonder if and how it ever can really work, particularly at a time when schools are strapped for resources.


Joan Ershler, WECP’s director, is convinced that inclusion can succeed in public schools. But it takes tremendous commitment to the underlying philosophy and to staff, she says. Around 85 percent of WECP’s budget, the majority of which is paid for by tuition fees, is devoted to staff, Ershler says. (Families of preschoolers in Michael’s class pay $730 a month for their children to attend five mornings a week and $1,135 a month for an eight-hour-day, fairly close to what other programs would cost. Some tuition assistance is available.) Each classroom has several staff members present at all times, which allows teachers to give students the kind of intensive attention Lynch was giving Michael the other day. Student teachers are also often present. Many of her teachers are trained in special-needs education, Ershler says. Speech and occupational therapists work onsite with the children. But there is no magic to teaching these children, she insists. “It absolutely can be replicated in the public schools. It requires no special skill set that can’t be learned by any teacher. It is just really good teaching.”


The school’s inclusive philosophy is obvious from the moment a visitor pulls up in the parking lot. Ramps allow wheelchairs to roll easily into the school’s classrooms and on paths through the lush playgrounds. Classroom computers have touch screens and children have access to lots of fun tools like paintbrushes that can be strapped onto wrists for those with poor muscle control and adaptive scissors. One bike has two seats so a friend can give a lift to another friend unable to peddle. Wiggly or anxious children are given aids to help them remain calm and focused including weighted blankets, squishy pillows, sensory toys and even gum.


And the curriculum is open-ended. While many more traditional preschools move from one pre-selected theme to the next every week, with the same activities every year, teachers at Waisman develop a curriculum based on the interests of the particular groups of kids they are working with. Such an open-ended and play-based curriculum also allows children with different abilities to participate at their own speed.


Activities are adopted to students. During what’s called “circle time,” when everyone talks about the day’s events, Lynch sits with the children on a rug, Michael in her lap. A large class calendar, with pictures and words identifying the day’s activities, is propped on an easel. To help Michael, a newcomer to the class, focus, Lynch gives him a smaller version of the class calendar to hold. “Why does Michael need to use the board?” a curious boy asks. “Because he’s just learning what we do,” Lynch explains in a very matter-of-fact way. The questioner, who is chewing gum to remain calm — turns back to the bigger calendar. No big deal. Lynch keeps her eyes on the other kids, too. “I have to tell you something,” she whispers at one point to a fidgety young boy. “It’s kind of rude to suck your knee.”


Teachers constantly mull over what they do, how they do it, and why. After circle time, children are allowed to choose a friend as they line up in pairs to go out to recess. Michael is among the last to be picked. He doesn’t seem to notice. But later, staff discuss whether or not allowing one child to select another could lead to exclusion and hurt feelings, and the next day children are sent out to recess based on what colors they are wearing. Such reflection spreads to events outside the school as well. Parents, too, get constant support and education from the center. When staff realized several years ago that students with special needs were not being invited to birthday parties, they called parents to a big meeting and tackled the problem head on. “It turned out that parents of typically developing students wanted to include everyone, but they didn’t know how,” Ershler recalls. The upshot? Parents of children with special needs said they would simply come to the parties with their kids and help out.


The children also learn to be more inclusive.


Madison parent Sarah Edgerton has watched two daughters thrive at Waisman, one with special needs and one without. “The school taught all of us that we all have our own special quirks and that we can be who we are in life and that is okay,” she says. Her youngest daughter Isabel, 5, is a typically developing child. “She has been introduced to a whole other world of children that she would not get in any other preschool,” Edgerton says. “She is a more patient, gentler child, more reflective.” Just the other day, when children were choosing friends to go outside with, Isabel chose Caroline. “When we first met, we had to get used to each other,” Isabel says. “But now Caroline and I have been friends for so long that we are used to each other.” The two pals headed out to the playground together hand-in-hand, beaming.




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