Recently, Alejandra Delaporte of ABILITY’s operation in South America visited CHIME, a charter school in California’s San Fernando Valley that promises quality education for all. She spoke with Annie Cox, the executive director of Early Education Programs, and Erin Studer, executive director of Charter School Programs.
Alejandra Delaporte: Tell me a bit about how CHIME came to be.
Annie Cox: The CHIME Institute is a nonprofit organization that started back in 1990. Prior to that, we had secured a U.S. Department of Education grant from ’87 to ’90 through two California State University at Northridge (CSUN) professors; it allowed us to look at preschool inclusion. The question we were exploring was how to support young children with disabilities in a typical early education program, so we did our own initial assessments while providing services to the community, mostly in the San Fernando Valley area.
At the end of the grant, we found that there were not a lot of options for parents who wanted to send their children to an inclusive school; at the same time, there was research that supported inclusion for young children with disabilities.
Delaporte: Was this before the Americans with Disabilities Act or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?
Cox: Yes. It was 1975, when the Education for All Handicapped Children Act began making sure that children with disabilities got an education. In the late ’80s, the word “inclusion” wasn’t even used; at the time we talked about “mainstreaming” children, especially in preschool. The rationale was that at that age they’re young, so why can’t they learn together? It kind of makes sense. By the time CHIME started, there was already some really good research saying: If it’s a high-quality early education program, it’s good for all kids.
So after the grant ran out in ’90, the local school district didn’t have a lot of integrated—to use one of the words from that time—or inclusive options. So we started our preschool program. We’re on the CSUN campus, a training site for university students. We still do a lot of training, and we have observation rooms, where people can watch.
Delaporte: Observing so they can study the process?
Cox: Yes. It’s a laboratory preschool and training site, and we can have 10 people in an observation room, listening to what’s going on without coming into the classroom and disrupting the model.
Delaporte: Is it done with a one-way mirror?
Cox: Yes. We had high school students visiting, and they said, “This is just like CSI.” (laughs) In the room where the children are, the wall looks just like a mirror, but on the other side we can see through it, and listen with headphones. It’s great for parents, too, because kids can behave very differently at school than they do at home.
Delaporte: I’ve heard that schools convince some parents of children with disabilities that it’s not convenient for their child to be mainstreamed. The experience of observing what actually happens in the classroom must be very enlightening.
Cox: And revealing… For instance, if the child with the disability is the parents’ first child, they may think that an issue is disability-related, when it’s just a kid issue. It may just be about being three- or four-years-old, and to realize that really changes things.
“It’s okay, developmentally, that my child does this at this time.” Separation issues—any child that age might experience that. And it’s not to discount the fact that the child has special needs, but it’s to say, Okay, there’s a common denominator there.
We have a contract with CSUN to be a training site. So we have really strong connections with the university, and we are constantly being visited by people from other countries, as well as by teachers and administrators locally. We would like to have staff members dedicated to outreach, training and research.
Delaporte: Some teachers have the mind-set that including children with disabilities is going to be too difficult, so gathering their own evidence that inclusion works, is perfect. It seems that you could create YouTube—
Cox: —training modules, absolutely. And those are the kinds of things that we really want to do more of and formalize. We’re thinking about having an inclusion institute, maybe next year, where we announce: “Come and see our preschool, our infant and toddler program, come and see our charter school, and get the latest research and best practices in the field.”
By law, when you talk about creating the least restrictive environment in the US for children and families, this type of approach needs to be considered. But sometimes there either are administrators or teachers who have not had the experience with inclusion, and their lack of exposure gets in the way.
When we talk to families, it’s about creating a community where there is respect, understanding and a feeling that we’re all in this together. We are doing this because we care about each other’s children, we care about each other, and we know what is the best. Some of the research is showing that when you talk about a team approach or the co-teaching approach in general education and special education, everybody benefits.
For example, say there’s an occupational therapist coming in, and it may be about one target child in the classroom and maybe that child needs some modifications or some adaptations in the classroom. Well, very often, other children in the classroom benefit from those modifications, as well.