Many years ago I met a strikingly beautiful little girl with big brown eyes and curly dark hair. She was certainly a child you could not forget. She was attending the preschool where my mother was the director. It was a preschool for children with disabilities and my little friend did have a disability.
In my current position as a special education preschool teacher I came across this beauty again. I am part of a group of parents and teachers founded in large part by her mother. This group works to constantly improve the education of students with disabilities (and all students in the process) from simply “free and appropriate” to exemplary. Though we are far from perfect we are making steps with every meeting, every activity, every out reach, every mind empowered or changed or opened or informed.
After joining this group I was able to see even more of Beauty as she began a work study position in my preschool classroom. She began the year with a bit of deer in the headlights look about her and grew into a young woman who was comfortable engaging children in appropriate play and also able to wait on the throng of folks rushing the concession stand at Play Day! I was overcome with pride as I said good-bye on her last day under my wing.
While Beauty has been a helping hand in my classroom she has touched my family life even more. Together with her mother she asked to walk in Graduation with her age peers and then come back the following year to finish up some school to work curriculum.
A little background…The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that all children with disabilities receive a “free and appropriate” education (just as their nondisabled peers are guaranteed) in the “least restrictive environment” which very basically means don’t discriminate students with disabilities. Unfortunately the phrases in quotations are interpreted differently by different folks. This mandate is expanded a little by requiring schools to education children from age 3 to age 21 – intended to give kids with disabilities a jump start before kindergarten and additional time to make the school to work transition more successful.
In my school district you graduate when your school career is ended. Some districts let you walk ceremoniously in graduation at the end of your first senior year. My state lets local districts decide so decisions vary.
I may have mentioned that this is Tiggy’s “first senior year.” Due to his disability he spent a few extra years transitioning from preschool through kindergarten to first grade. He’ll be 20 this summer, but will have one more year of school in order to access special education services until his 21st birthday. That said, it was expected that he would walk in Graduation next year. BUT, the kids that graduated this year are the children that he has worked and learned alongside since kindergarten.
Enter my friend and her mother…Beauty and her mom worked to pass a bill that would give Tiggy the opportunity to graduate this year – with the kids he’s known since kindergarten. And with less than 2 weeks prior to Graduation, the Governor signed this bill into law! We scrambled to send out announcements, get some photos, and pick a date for a graduation party.