By Gina Apostol
At her Word Work station at school, *Sabrina sorts out words that rhyme with –or.
“I’m getting rid of my old words,” says Sabrina in a halting but triumphant voice to the teacher assigned to her in this fourth-grade classroom at IDEAL School, an independent school in Manhattan with a mission of inclusion. Sabrina has Down syndrome, and her classmates include a child in a wheelchair, along with six children on a mat who will soon sit down to read fantasy books of their choice in order to write literary essays on the psychological implications of the settings in books.
Lyssa, a girl with braces on her teeth and braces on her legs, comes in with another teacher after having done an individualized test on her reading skills. At this point, there are four teachers in the room: the main classroom teacher, the specialist, an assistant for Sabrina, and Lyssa’s reading skills tester. But the flow of lessons remains seamless, and the room is as calm as a church: four future essay writers are now intent on their books at their Close Reading stations, two boys settle down to have fun with math, Sabrina is sounding out her rhyming words, and the fourth teacher recommends some books in the “O” bin to help Lyssa, who stands in her braces in the middle of the room, waving at her friends: “I love you,” she says to the room.
In the middle of a Tuesday in New York, this fourth-grade classroom is a ballet of individuation and inclusion. In 2005 a trio of parents who had children with Down syndrome opened the IDEAL School. Public schools are required to accommodate children with special needs, and private independent schools have forms of instruction that the founders of IDEAL School appreciated. But with an ideal of inclusion in mind that had no counterpart in the classrooms they visited, the three parents — a lawyer and two financial analysts — set up their own school.
Most schools pay lip service to the issue of ability: it is the rarest of schools that can accommodate kids with mobility challenges and neurological issues as well as engage potently in diversity, including socioeconomic and racial equality. At IDEAL, the definition of diversity is expanded explicitly to include ability — children with a range of cognitive skills across the spectrum are in classrooms with typically developing children, many of them high-achieving, such as the six essay writers in Sabrina’s fourth-grade class. Twenty-five percent of IDEAL students have cognitive abilities across the autism spectrum. The rest are, as the teachers call them, “neurotypical.” At the same time, the school is committed to socioeconomic justice: sixty percent of its students are on financial aid. In any given classroom, the mix of abilities, races, ethnicities and socioeconomic classes gives the visitor a haunting sense of what the nation’s classrooms could be: a panoply of collectivity, of diversity.
The school’s innovation is that, in order to teach children across such a broad cognitive range, social justice is at the core of the IDEAL curriculum. At IDEAL, empathy is not just an affect or a moral attitude. Empathy is a cognitive, neurological matter, an intellectual tool nurtured and practiced in explicit lessons. Empathy defines how students succeed: it is an academic skill.
Above all, children learn about perspective: from kindergarten to the recently opened twelfth-grade classes, anti-bias lessons and multicultural values thread through all subjects. Students grow and learn from owning their identities. But more important, as they begin to grasp their identities, they grow and learn from understanding the identities of their peers.
Danny in the sixth grade is crafting a script for a movie for history class. He has compiled an impressive annotated history of immigration in the United States, from the 19th-century Chinese Exclusion Acts to Donald Trump’s executive orders. In his immigration research folder, he writes in paragraphs, in robust detail. Andy, sitting next to him at the table, also has a folder on immigration designed for his special needs: he answers multiple-choice questions, fills in bubbles, writes one-liners where Danny fills a page. Danny and Andy will each produce a video-letter to Donald Trump on his executive orders.
The scripts of both boys question the president’s exclusion of Syrians, Afghans and other vulnerable groups from entering America. “On the inside we are alike,” one script says in its letter to the president. “But on the outside we have different features.” Both scripts will take a stand against the president’s proposed Mexico-U.S. wall.
Such parallel learning in small groups, with differentiated, individualized plans for each student, marks classroom lessons at the IDEAL School. Both Danny and Andy are contemplating this month’s school-wide social justice theme — Change in America. Through their lessons in history they are reflecting on the nation’s problems in terms of an ideal embedded in their own classroom’s structure: inclusion.
Issues of social justice are intentionally mirrored in the structure of classroom learning at IDEAL School. Parallel play, differentiation, collaboration, group work and multiple-learning-styles assessments occur in some form at various other independent and public schools. But at IDEAL, parallel learning and differentiation are emphatically at the center of the classroom, with social justice both as a theme and a practice. The school’s innovative “no pull-out” policy ties this all together.
The stigma of being the other — the disabled, the poor, the person of color — has no room at IDEAL. For instance, the child with Down syndrome in a traditional classroom might need to be taken out regularly for therapy sessions: this separation from her peers thus marks that Down syndrome child as “other” in the traditional classroom. Though children with Down syndrome also have the right to be treated equally, it is rare that a classroom structure offers them that equal right. Inclusion at IDEAL School means no child is ever pulled out from class because her special needs segregate her. IDEAL’s innovation is to use elective time for all.
At elective time, all children have the choice to do tasks that fit their needs. Thus, four children in the fourth-grade classroom will write essays that enrich their interest in literature as Sabrina sits beside them doing parallel work on her rhyming words and Lyssa goes away to test her reading skills as two of the boys on the storytelling mat, Ollie and Leo, choose to prep each other on their speed at math on the classroom’s Chromebooks.
At the end of the day in an eighth-grade science classroom, Denise is contemplating how a human heart compares to a pig’s heart, Timothy wonders which solvent will cause transformation in a jellybean and Jacqueline has been gathering ingredients for her science fair experiment — a hard-boiled egg, a milk bottle, a strip of newspaper and matches. For an hour, the science students have been writing up their proposals for science fair, all of which involve experiments that will produce some kind of change. Jacqueline finally finishes her proposal, based on her chemistry research, and she comes up front to test her ingredients.
“Something’s definitely gonna change,” she says, “or else my experiment fails!” She has her goggles on, and she puts the egg on top of the milk bottle, lit up by a flaming piece of paper — and pop! The look on Jacqueline’s face as she watches how she has precisely transformed the nature of an egg by her intentional mix of chemical elements is priceless.
So, too, is the intentional, elemental charge the IDEAL School hopes to make with its powerful ingredients — inclusion, social justice, and empathy.
*All students names have been changed.
Gina Apostol’s third novel, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, won the 2013 PEN/Open Book Award, and her first two novels, Bibliolepsy and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, both won the Juan Laya Prize for the Novel (Philippine National Book Award). Her essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Foreign Policy and others.
Chris X. Carroll took the photographs used in this story. Carroll is a human, husband, father, photographer, writer, poet, teacher, firefighter, hunter, bassist and astronaut. Well, maybe not that last, but day ain’t over yet.
Copyright © 500 Pens. May 2017.