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Special needs preschooler thrives in inclusive program

Comstock Park — Preschoolers invite their classmate, Alivia Brewer, into their play schemes. They sing and dance with her and greet her in the hallways. 

Despite being non-verbal, Alivia is a cheerful and inquisitive preschooler who loves to play with her friends at school. On a February morning she molded playdough with help from a teacher aide and classmate. She mimicked a classmate’s dance moves, happily goofing around for the camera.

“Alivia appears to enjoy being in the preschool classroom as she always greets each of the students with a hug and a smile every morning,” said Kathleen Kowroski, program lead for the Kent ISD Early Childhood Center at Greenridge and a speech and language pathologist.

She is a very social special education student who educators thought could benefit from being in a mainstream preschool classroom at the Little Panthers Preschool at Greenridge Elementary. Kowroski said the goal is to provide Alivia with more opportunities with her peers as part of inclusive efforts to help students with varying disabilities.

Jodi LaFeldt, preschool and special education director for Comstock Park Public Schools, concurs that having Alivia in the morning preschool class has been a positive experience. That will likely open up some opportunities for other students, she said.

“We’ve seen some great responses from her and from her peers within the classroom,” LaFeldt said. 

Part of the Class

Alivia spends mornings in teacher Kaitlin Hazel’s preschool class and afternoons with Brian Gast, a special education teacher at Greenridge. Little Panthers preschool is a tuition-based program in the Greenridge Elementary building.

“Research states kids learn best with their peers,” Gast said. They learn more appropriate language, witness appropriate play skills and eat and nap with the students.

The other eight students in the morning class have learned that Alivia doesn’t speak the way they do – but she uses strong non-verbal language. The students are even learning sign language to be able to communicate with Alivia.

“Our children are learning empathy and how to accept others who are different from themselves,” Hazel said.  “(Alivia) brings a calming sense to our classroom. She’ll pat you and hold your hand.” 

Tenor Kruzel, 5, said Alivia rubs his hand and loves all the preschoolers. “She plays with us a lot,” added Arie Punches-Bett, age 4. 

‘Alivia is an integral part of the classroom environment and a member of class every day.’

–Brian Gast, a special education teacher at Greenridge Elementary School

Hazel said the children show kindness to Alivia and consider Alivia a friend.

“They are interested in learning why she is unable to talk and express how they want to help her learn,” Hazel said.

The children were concerned when Alivia was absent, and they asked when she would return. After Alivia spent some time away from the classroom, they had to relearn how to interact with her.

Teacher aide Teri Little works with Alivia Brewer and Quinn Lima

Learning from Peers

Hazel said parents are excited to expose their children to an inclusive classroom and feel the experience will help their children treat others with respect and not see them as “different.”

Gast has 30 years of experience in special education preschool. He works with students of varying disabilities, ranging from autism to physical and cognitive impairments. 

“Alivia is an integral part of the classroom environment and a member of class every day,” Gast said.

It’s a team effort to work between the two classrooms. Gast pops into Alivia’s morning class to discuss goals and objectives and to find ways to help support Hazel, who is doing the day-to-day work with Alivia. Alivia joins Gast’s classroom in the afternoon for more intensive work.

“It’s been eye-opening and a really good experience for everyone involved in the program,” said Gast.

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Karen Gentry
Karen Gentry covers Comstock Park. She moved to the Grand Rapids area in the mid-1980s and has been a resident of Comstock Park since 2002. She understands the complexity, rewards and challenges of the teaching profession as she has five years of experience as a high school teacher at River Valley High School in Three Oaks, Mich. and St. Stephen High School in Saginaw. As a reporter for the Advance Newspapers and Mlive she covered Sparta, Kent City and Northview schools. She is happy to be a part of the great team of journalists at School News Network and writing about Comstock Park Public Schools. She is a graduate of Lake Michigan Catholic High School in St Joseph, Michigan and Central Michigan University. Read Karen's full bio

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