Cover Story

Meeting special needs

Issue: "The new school year," Sept. 11, 1999

When the parents of a four-year old autistic child came to Barb Newman, a special-education teacher at Zeeland Christian School, they wanted to know if he could attend the school. Mrs. Newman visited the child's pre-school (a self-contained classroom for autistic children) and observed a young boy who was out of control, throwing books and screaming-as were the other children in the class.

Zeeland Christian accepted the boy, "although we were all so very nervous." Within a short time at Zeeland, the boy began to behave like the other children in the classroom. "Autistic children are excellent followers," she says. He benefited from "being able to watch how other children did it." His language developed as he interacted with children who spoke, and within a year he was toilet trained. After a while his full-time aide was let go because the teacher said she wasn't necessary. The story proved a basic point made by Zeeland Christian principal Bill VanDyk: "Kids learn better how to be kids from other kids than from adults or other mentally impaired children."

For the past 12 years Zeeland Christian has embraced inclusive education. Before that a handicapped child in Zeeland, Mich., on the state's western side, had to travel 60 miles to Holland, to find the closest self-contained Christian special-education classroom in the area.

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That distance was too far for Christian parents in Ottawa County. They decided to add a special-education classroom at Zeeland Christian School, one that would be available to all the Christian children in the whole county. But before the self-contained classroom could be built, the people at Zeeland Christian learned about inclusive education-and the school has not been the same since.

Principal Bill VanDyk calls it "an educational breakthrough that now seems so obvious, we wonder why we didn't think of it sooner."

It means that for a large part of the day, children with physical and mental disabilities are placed in regular classrooms. The school has two self-contained special-education rooms for those times when the children need to be outside the classroom. Although this is an expensive proposition, parents in this parent-owned and -run school voted unanimously to go forward with the program, which causes Mr. VanDyk to chuckle, "because nothing is ever unanimous" in a Christian school. But the parents were convinced, he said, "that special-needs kids have a place in Christian schools. We do our best to teach all of God's kids. And God's kids don't come in one form."

This year Zeeland Christian will have 28 special-needs children in a school of about 850 students ranging from pre-school through eighth grade. Seven or eight of the children are autistic, several have Down syndrome, and some have rare physical disorders. Some students require an assistant with them throughout the day; others don't need such intensive care.

Knowing that the school was committed wholeheartedly to the idea of inclusive education made the price tag easier to bear. Special-education students cost an average of $10,000 to educate, far more than the standard tuition of $3,200, but they pay no more than others. Donors, including the Children's Learning Center, a local foundation for special-needs kids, make up the difference.

The school estimates that 30 percent of the $10,000 cost of educating a child with special needs comes from that child's tuition, and another 30 percent comes from the Children's Learning Center. The balance at Zeeland is paid for by requested donations from the other families in the school; at Zeeland Christian each family is asked to pay about $133. (Other Christian schools in the area divide the non-donated needs cost by the number of families and add it to tuition.)

Mr. VanDyk says the program "has really helped regular-education kids see that all kids are born with a different package." At the beginning of the school year, Barb Newman goes into the classrooms and explains to each group of children their classmate's disability. She emphasizes accurate information and explains to the children the need to be friends with the student who is different. That idea of friendship is formalized in groups called "circles of friends." At the lower grades the whole class becomes a circle. By middle school a circle is made up of six to eight kids who meet with a special-education teacher and the special-needs child to discuss problems and misunderstandings.

Mrs. Newman says that discussions about behaviors are open and honest. For instance, a student might complain that a Down syndrome child is a messy eater. Mrs. Newman explains the physiological problem involving the tongue and mouth that makes the child a messy eater. But the discussion doesn't end there. The Down syndrome child might say, "Gee, I need to use my napkin more."

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