Grandville — Birthday festivities at school aren’t complete until everyone can participate, according to third-grade teacher Jessica Jacobsma. Her general education students often ask to wait for students in the cognitively impaired program (CI) to join in before they celebrate.
“It’s always super cute to see how excited they get” about including CI students, said Jacobsma.
The environment in Jacobsma’s classroom reflects a school-wide inclusion push at Century Park Learning Center. In the past few years, the Century Park staff has ramped up efforts to ensure that students of varying abilities can learn alongside one another.
“We are doing more inclusion than we’ve ever done,” said Katy Veenstra, who has taught in Century Park’s CI classroom for 13 years.
Veenstra and co-teacher Amanda Voss’s CI classroom is a fun place to learn, complete with a color-coded mood identification chart, bug anatomy posters and live caterpillars turning into butterflies before students’ very eyes. But CI students also do much of their learning in gen-ed classrooms like Jacobsma’s.
The recent inclusion efforts include a peer-to-peer mentor program, in which CI students are paired with gen-ed students who help them join mainstream classroom learning. Another major development is a brand-new curriculum designed for CI students that will be implemented in the coming fall and will allow teachers to focus more on inclusion.
“It’s really all about providing equity — everybody having the same opportunities, but everybody getting what they need to be successful,” said Veenstra.
Inclusion has opened the door to all kinds of new experiences for students. Earlier this year, both CI and gen-ed students had the opportunity to take a field trip to Lansing together to see the state capitol building and visit a museum. “It was awesome,” said third-grader Lucy Gritter, a CI student.
CI and gen-ed fifth-graders also got the chance to experience camp together. CI student Pauly Baker said his favorite part of the experience was using a compass.
A Collaborative Effort
Inclusion at Century Park has emerged from the close collaboration between CI teachers and general-education teachers.
“It is a whole team effort,” said Voss, adding that gen-ed teachers “are so flexible and willing to meet our kids where they’re at.”
In addition to integrating CI students into their classrooms, gen-ed teachers have collaborated with the CI teachers outside of the classroom. According to Voss, they attend behavior review meetings and individualized education plan (IEP) meetings for CI students alongside those students’ teachers.
For kindergarten teacher Hillary Huberts, inclusion hits close to home. Huberts began her career as a special-ed teacher before transitioning to general education. She said that, for students, inclusion is a “non-issue.”
“Kids are kids, and they all deserve to be a part of a group and be included,” said Huberts. “It just enriches our classroom.”
Voss and Veenstra emphasized that, when the necessary supports are in place, inclusion is not as hard to implement as it might seem.
“I think what people get really surprised about is just how smooth it can be and how easy it truly is to do,” Veenstra said.
A Meaningful Impact
The Century Park staff has noticed meaningful changes in the lives of both CI and gen-ed students since introducing more inclusion practices.
“They’ve built and established amazing friendships and connections in their classes,” said Voss. These friendships have also grown beyond the classroom, with some CI and gen-ed students beginning to hang out outside of school.
“We’ve seen their confidence grow so much this year,” Voss said of her CI students. By the end of the year, Voss and Veenstra have seen enough progress to pull back paraprofessional support for their students in gen-ed classrooms. They want to give CI students the chance to be more independent and learn alongside peers, as peers, without necessarily needing an adult to monitor them.
Going forward, Voss and Veenstra plan to expand inclusion efforts even more. They’re hoping to make the transition smoother between elementary, middle and high school for CI students. And Century Park is continuing the process of becoming a formal Unified Champion School, which would connect students to more inclusion programming through the Special Olympics.
“We’re all about progress,” Veenstra said. “Progress over perfection.”