“If we do that for you, then we’ll have to do it for everyone.”
I can’t tell you how many times parents have come to my school with a story of the myriad of reasons that the public schools were unable to meet the needs of their child. Often, it has to do with making accommodations for special needs, but other times it has to do with dealing with individual differences in traditional learners.
I sympathize with the public schools: they simply have too many students and too few staff to fully meet the needs of each and every child in their care. Still, they create problems for themselves by making sweeping rules and policies that work for the majority and yet necessarily result in a minority falling through the cracks.
Individual difference is not something we should be afraid of; it is something to be embraced. If that means that one child’s physical disability means she needs help carrying her backpack from the bus to her locker, that doesn’t mean that every child is entitled to have the same help. If one child’s anxiety results in his having to step out of the classroom for short breaks in order to regroup and refocus, that does not mean that every child is entitled to the same breaks. Support should be given as needed.
I am fortunate to be the director of Longview School, a small, private school located in the Village of Brewster in the Hudson Valley. With 25 to 30 students in the entire school, pre-K to 12th grade, we have no cracks: students get the help they need.
We are not a school specifically for children with special needs, because we believe in real inclusion. According to PBS Parents, “Inclusive education happens when children with and without disabilities participate and learn together in the same classes.” Within the public schools, this has resulted in a transition away from self-contained special education classes towards integrated classes, where special education students (often with one or more aide) are part of classes with traditional learners. The reasoning supporting this is solid–it enables special needs children to learn at a higher level, academically, socially and emotionally. It is in the implementation that the practice falls short. Inclusion is only partially effective and can even fail kids when class sizes are too big.
Again, I am fortunate, because at Longview School our class sizes range from 2 to 8 students. In this context, integrating high-functioning special needs students, whether they are identified as having ADD, ADHD, Asperger Syndrome (I still think this category of autism makes a useful distinction), sensory sensitivity, or bipolar disorder, works extremely well. If one of our students needs support paying attention, taking notes, keeping organized, completing assignments, doing homework, talking with peers, coping with noise, and/or working in groups, we provide that help. As a result, Longview utilizes a version of inclusion that truly serves all our students.
Our approach to working with special needs children is just a small part of the way we are reinventing education. Academically, we believe in depth over breadth. As a private school, we are not required to give all the state benchmark tests. This allows us to spend the time our students need on each topic before moving on to the next. Our staff is skilled at differentiating instruction, so that students of varying levels in the same class are able to thrive by being taught just what they need to learn next. In addition, our hope is that all students will find their passions, which is not always easy when their education is limited to the traditional curriculum. For that reason, we offer a slew of once-a-week electives in areas hardly ever taught at the K-12 level. These include game programming, engineering, movie making, photography, calligraphy, public speaking, debate, philosophy, psychology, forensics, carpentry, sociology, sculpture, comic book culture, graphic novels, current events, strategy games, among others.
Finally, the atmosphere at Longview feels quite different from the institutionalized settings our schools have become. The typical conflict that underlies so many student/teacher and student/student relationships is missing. This is due, in great part, to the way our program empowers students. Instead of the adults acting as surrogate parent decision-makers, the whole community–students and teachers together–creates and amends the rules in the legislature and enforces the rules in our judiciary. Since the whole community works together to chooses what rules are important for the school to be effective, and since the whole community decides upon what consequences are fair when rule-breaking occurs, people naturally get along with each other better. That is why adults who visit our school are so often impressed with the unity and confidence our students display.
In closing, I want to be clear that at Longview School we have not found the one best way to educate children; there are at least as many viable approaches as there are days in a year. I am just fortunate to be a part of one of those places that work, and as a result, each day I have the privilege of watching our students advance on their paths to happy, responsible, independent adulthood.
Mark Jacobs is the co-founder and director of Longview School, a private, democratic school located in Brewster, NY. He is a social activist who has spent much of his life trying to find solutions to the problems our communities face. He is an award-winning public speaker and nationally-ranked racquetball player. He lives in Garrison, New York, with his wife, to whom he has been ecstatically married for over 20 years, and has two children, who never cease to amaze and delight him.
For more information about Longview School, check out the school website at www.longviewschool.org.