Bringing inclusion to the community
By Chantal Da Silva
February 27, 2014
Classmates of 15-year-old Kurtis Duchene could easily tell you the importance of inclusion at school. That’s because they will leave high school better prepared for a world that doesn’t shut its doors to a teenager living with cerebral palsy, said Kathy Waybrant, Duchene’s mother.
Throughout his academic career, Duchene has benefited from the inclusive education approach, one that advocates against segregated learning for students with special needs. Simply put, instead of attending a specialized school or separate classes, students with needs like Duchene’s participate in the standard curriculum.
In his setting, Duchene has formed long-lasting friendships with classmates who understand his needs as a student with limited physical and communicational abilities.
But when Duchene first entered the high school system two years ago, Waybrant said her family “hit a brick wall” when her son was placed in a specialized school outside the family’s local community in Kitchener.
“Life seems to be a little different in high school,” she said. “There seems to be more of a mindset that we don’t ‘do’ inclusion in high school and I don’t know all the reasons for that.”
With the help of Western’s Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education (CRCIE), Duchene’s family appealed the school board’s decision and secured a spot at his local home school, where his presence has proved to educators – once again – that inclusion works.
Founded in 1985, the CRCIE operates out of Faculty of Education. Led by Jacqui Specht, a professor of Educational Psychology and Special Education, the centre is a national platform aiming to promote inclusive practices and inform educators on research related to inclusion.
More recently, the centre has gained distinction as an international hub for research on inclusive education, attracting researchers from around the globe.
Specht, who became the director in 2004, says the centre lays the groundwork for teachers who want to have an inclusive environment in their classrooms.
The centre works with the London District Catholic School Board and performs a range of studies within their classrooms, including current research aimed at discovering the best approach to building individual education plans for students with specific needs.
Although the centre’s research in London has included the Thames Valley District School Board in the past, in more recent years, it has partnered almost exclusively with the Catholic board. That board, Specht said, takes a more active role in integrating students with exceptional learning needs into the classroom.
“We know that inclusion works,” says Tamara Nugent, Catholic board superintendent of education. “But we also know that you need to have the right resources in place for that to happen.”
In Ontario, Specht said, “we use the term ‘exceptional children’ to identify a very specific group of kids who have learning needs.” While the inclusive education approach is specifically aimed toward integrating children with exceptional needs into the classroom, Specht said it’s a teaching philosophy that benefits all students.
“We really have to care about the relationship we have with our kids. If we start with that, and really value what each child brings into the classroom, that’s a good beginning,” Specht said. “All the research would tell us that they will be more invested in the curriculum if they feel like they belong.”
The same lesson can be learned from Duchene’s experience within the public school system.
“Given the right environment, everyone wants to feel like they belong,” Waybrant said.
Although studies in support of inclusion do exist, Waybrant added, the problem is most school boards are either unaware of the benefits of the inclusive approach, or simply do not have the resources to restructure their programming.
In the Catholic board, however, Nugent said, the “seeds are already being sown” with the help of the CRCIE for greater inclusion across the board. “The fact that it’s happening right here at Western is, to me, just really exciting,” Nugent said.
Last October, the CRCIE hosted its 16th annual Coaching to Inclusion conference, also held in collaboration with the Catholic school board. The conference was an opportunity for parents and teachers to learn about new ways to promote inclusive teaching practices.
“(Specht) plays a very active role in that,” Nugent said. “She can distill information down in a way that’s very meaningful. It’s rooted in research, but she captures your heart and your mind as well and that’s how attitudes get changed.”
As the centre continues to gain prominence, its supporters hope to see heightened awareness of the benefits of inclusive education.
“Inclusion isn’t just breathing the same air. You have to go beyond that – it’s about teaching to all,” Waybrant said. “That’s what the centre will do and already has done. It’s showing how beneficial it is to have inclusion, not only socially and emotionally, but academically as well.”
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