This morning I had the opportunity to visit an Innovative Teaching Practices showcase at Presidio Child Development Center. This idyllic spot is one of the jewels of SFUSD’s Child Development Program, located just behind the Presidio Bowling Cener at the Main Post. The teachers described the Reggio Emilia-inspired curriculum, and their inclusion program.
At Presidio, classrooms are large (28 students) but each classroom has four students with “special rights” (the school’s term for special needs students). The special rights students bring with them additional staff and resources to support the program, but the additional resources are only part of the reason for the program’s success. The main reason the program is successful is that the entire staff, from site director Sandy Osborne down to the teachers and the classroom aides, embrace inclusion and understand how to include kids with extra needs in a meaningful way.
I was blown away listening to Merri Besden, Presidio’s inclusion specialist, and her teacher colleague Martha describe the process of including M—-, a boy with an all-consuming interest in ocean life. Now, anyone who has lived with a child who has a “special interest” knows that it can be incredibly annoying and sometimes disruptive to talk about these topics day in and day out (right now in my house we are suffering through an interest in casting Alvin and the Chipmunks in various fairy tale narratives. Imaginative? Yes. But after the tenth or fifteenth time casting Alvin as Snow White and Dave as the wicked queen, the game begins to lose its luster.)
The teachers figured out that the other children in the classroom could be included in M—-‘s favorite subject, and that he would learn and grow by teaching others what he knew. It was wonderful to hear about how M—- learned play skills, broadened his attention span, and ultimately learned to expand his interests to other subjects.
The presentation reminded me again how important it is for SFUSD to expand access to inclusion in its preschool environments. Right now we have around 20 Child Development preschool sites, only one of which (Presidio) offers a full-inclusion program for pre-Kindergarten children. Presidio has 12 seats for kids with “special rights” — which sounds like a lot until you realize that there are 412 preschoolers with identified disabilities enrolled at SFUSD sites for the 2008-09 school year. Surely more than 12 of them are candidates for a full inclusion environment.
In the preschool years, it is much easier to include children with significant needs, and the benefits for them and for their typical peers are boundless. The teachers described how accepting children are of differences at ages three and four, and that jibes exactly with my experience. Expanding the opportunities for children to learn together in the early years is very high on my list of priorities.