A Community of Friends and Classmates

Andrew Dixon (above) and his family were pioneers in the early efforts to design a more inclusive approach to education in New Hampshire. © Judith Emmert. This article—which appeared in Equity and Choice, a publication of the Institute for Responsible Education at Boston University—received an award from the National Education Writers Association.

When Andrew Dixon laughs, giggles come bubbling up from somewhere deep inside, crinkling his eyes into gleeful half moons. It’s Friday afternoon, school’s out, and the third grader from Concord, New Hampshire, is sprawled on the floor watching a cartoon. Something just struck his funnybone. In the kitchen, his mother, Beth Dixon, pauses to listen. “I love that,” she says, smiling.

Suddenly, Andrew bursts into the room and heads for his unfinished glass of grape juice. His movements are quick and uneven. He stops now and then to smile or nod, his head swiveling this way and that, his eyes peering out from beneath a shock of blond hair. He makes sounds, but he does not speak. His mother wipes up spilled juice, readjusts Andrew’s chair, helps open a package of crackers, cleans messy hands, reminds him to sit down, wipes a dripping chin. She moves with a practiced deliberation that is infinitely patient. And when Beth Dixon talks about Andrew, she does not talk much about mental retardation or cerebral palsy, autistic-like behavior or hyperactivity (all conditions he’s been labeled with). She talks about his brothers and sisters, his teacher, his friends, the parties he attends. She talks about his life.

As Andrew finishes his snack, there is a knock on the back door. Ben, who lives next door, has wandered over to visit. Together, he and Andrew scramble down the steps to play. Andrew is a child who, only a few years ago, had no real friends outside of his own family. “I knew something wasn’t right,” says Beth, remembering her child’s first years of schooling,  “but I just didn’t know what was right.”

Before Inclusion
Like other New Hampshire children with disabilities, Andrew started school when he was three, in a self-contained classroom for the developmentally disabled in the district preschool. “It was all that was available,” explains Beth. “I did ask about enrolling him in a regular preschool, but they said they’d only take him if he walked. Andrew didn’t walk until he was four.” The second year, Andrew attended a class in a regular school, but in a special accessible wing. “He was in a classroom with four other kids in wheelchairs who did not speak. When I complained about him not having anyone to imitate, they said, ‘Well, he doesn’t have any imitation skills, anyway.’”

Beth Dixon tells this story quietly and without anger, but it is clear that these were difficult years. She tells of waiting at the bus stop every morning at seven o’clock to put her four-year-old son on the bus for the hour-long ride to school. She tells of their efforts to have Andrew join a regular kindergarten. At one point this was happening for a portion of the day, but the method left a lot to be desired: “Everybody in Andrew’s class would go together,” remembers Beth, “and the teacher would announce, ‘Here come our special friends!'”

After three years of completely self-contained classrooms, Andrew was finally placed part time in a regular kindergarten, by himself, without the rest of his special-needs classmates. Within three weeks he was in there full time. His attention span during the first six weeks went from three seconds to twenty minutes. “There was finally something interesting going on,” explains Beth. “Now there were times when he was expected to concentrate. He was treated more like a typical kid.”

Toward Inclusion
The Dixons were getting closer to what they wanted for their son. It wasn’t really, after all, much different from what most parents want for their children—a community of friends and classmates where they can learn and grow and where they are welcomed as “one of the gang.” But for this to work with Andrew, people had to learn to see him in a new way. Instead of seeing him as Andrew, the retarded boy, they had to learn to see him as Andrew, one of the boys in the class.

And there was one more thing: Andrew Dixon needed to stop riding the school bus. Instead of traveling an hour each day to be with students he would never see outside the classroom, and then coming home to a town where kids his age would never say hello to him, he needed to go to school close to home. He needed to be walking the streets, going to the store, living, and playing in his own community—like a typical kid.

“The real battle came when we insisted that he go to his neighborhood school,” says Beth, whose three older children had all attended the Conant School in Concord. By this time, Beth Dixon had been to a conference on the benefits of inclusive education sponsored by the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire. She was convinced that complete integration, inclusion in a typical classroom in his own school, was the answer for Andrew. But many hurdles remained. “Nobody knew how to do it. They all thought I was crazy. Even my husband wasn’t totally sold on the idea.” There were endless meetings, lots of explanations, and plenty of resistance.

“Of all the principals in the district, I was probably the one most set against it,” says Paul Tousignant (better known as Mr. T.), the principal of Conant Elementary School. “I just didn’t think it would work. But the philosophy of the district was to mainstream these kids, and Andrew’s parents were very determined advocates – I don’t mean that negatively. They were such good people. They were parents of mine, they belonged to our school. I really felt I had to give it a shot.”A turning point came when Beth Dixon showed up one day in Mr. T’s office. “I figured maybe it would help if I just went in and talked to him from my heart about why I wanted Andrew there,” says Beth. “I tried to explain I wasn’t going to sue him or something if Andrew didn’t learn to read. ‘I just don’t understand what you want then,’ he said. When I told him I wanted Andrew to go to a birthday party, he put his head in his hands and groaned. ‘I just can’t guarantee that,’ he said. But after one month of school, I stopped by his office and told him we’d achieved our goal—Andrew had been invited to his first party. It’s been one success story after another ever since.”

Getting Started
Just before eight on a Friday morning, the front doors of the Conant School are swinging open and closed as bunches of children come pouring through, a cheerful commotion of color and noise. Some have parents in tow. Many carry lunch boxes or knapsacks. A few cradle homework projects shielded protectively from the morning rush. In the midst of the crowd, Todd rolls by, smiling, in his wheelchair. Shawn is carried by his aide. Ryan and Alicia both pass through the halls on their way to their classrooms. Right about eight, Andrew appears, dressed in blue jeans, a longsleeved, baggy, red t-shirt and high-top sneakers. He looks pretty much like your average third grader. His mother stops for a minute to chat with a teacher, but Andrew rounds the corner and heads for class. He’s late.

It’s been three years since Andrew Dixon arrived at the Conant School. The success of his first year, helped pave the way for the inclusion of these other children, some of whom are even more profoundly disabled than Andrew. “He really turned our thinking around,” says Mr. T., a man who once announced to his staff that they would never have to deal with Andrew because “there was nothing this school could do for him.” These days, nobody in the Conant School looks twice at wheelchairs. People are beginning to understand that Todd talks with his eyes, that Shawn communicates with his smiles and tears, that Alicia speaks with her hands. Ask any adult, and they’ll tell you the children are learning these things faster than the teachers, but the grownups are making progress. Some teachers are even requesting to have the “special kids” in their classrooms.

Not that any of this has been easy. Jeffrey Libby is the integration support teacher for the Conant School. A former classroom teacher who also spent five years teaching at the Perkins School for the Blind, Libby was hired when the district decided to go forward with efforts to dismantle its segregated special education classrooms. “The only thing that got me through that first year,” he says, “was my belief that we could do it-and that this was right. I certainly didn’t take this job knowing exactly what to do. I just came to school each day, and we learned as we went along.

“There is no cookbook for this idea. The way to start is just to start. You place the student in the classroom and you go. Sure there was resistance. Some teachers were skeptical – some still are. And when Andrew first came here, everything stopped. People looked. Today you see all sorts of stuff parading by, and nobody blinks.” That’s because the people in this school, where inclusive education is gradually being embraced, are learning to see differently.

Just ask the kids about Andrew. They don’t try to explain some complicated disability. “He loves apple crisp,” says one. “He’s funny and nice,” says another. “The only thing I don’t like about him is when he doesn’t follow directions and he knows he’s supposed to,” explains one girl. “You know, he’s just like any other person – when he gets yelled at he doesn’t like it. And he does get in trouble.” These are children who eat lunch with Andrew. They play with him on the playground. They sit next to him during story reading in the afternoon. These are youngsters Andrew never would have known – and who never would have known him—if he were being educated in a segregated special education class in a school outside his own neighborhood.

Inclusion at Work
By the middle of the morning on Friday, it’s gym time in the third grade, and Andrew’s class is outside on a clear fall day, playing a circle game in the grass. Andrew is tossing the big ball with the rest of the kids, right in the middle of the uproar. When the class lines up to go inside for math, Andrew, who is dawdling, is hurried along by his aide. He’s expected and encouraged to keep up. When the students have settled back in their seats, their teacher, Mrs. Pearson, explains about a special project they’ll be doing in groups at the front of the room. While one group is with her, the rest of the class will work at some independent math, rolling dice and adding the numbers that turn up.

Andrew is eager to go to the front of the room, but his name is not called in the first group. With some coaxing from his aide, Glenda Hanscomb, he sits still long enough for her to help him throw the dice a few times, guiding his hand to write the numbers he has thrown. She speaks quietly to him, repeating the numbers and encouraging him. Meanwhile, the other students are working at their desks, heads bent in concentration. They all proceed at their own pace.

Andrew cannot hold a pencil alone. He is never expected to speak or read. No one is quite sure how much he is capable of retaining. But his classroom teacher is convinced that having Andrew in her class is worth it. “I don’t know how much he’ll ever get academically,” she says, “but I can see the look in those eyes and on his face. He’s getting something. He’s a happy little boy. The problem with special needs kids is that we expect them to perform perfectly so we can measure their progress. We don’t expect that of regular kids. Andrew shouldn’t have to be on target all day.”

While his teacher looks for ways to keep Andrew involved, she depends a great deal on his aide, and she leaves much of the specific curriculum adaptation to his team. Andrew’s individual education plan (IEP), which outlines measurable objectives, helps determine what he needs to learn. It is established by a team-his teacher, parents, speech therapist, occupational therapist, behavioral consultant, and the integration support teacher. “The other members of his team probably know best what he needs,” says Pearson. “My main responsibility right now is to be sure he’s included in what we’re doing in every way I can. For example, I discovered that he loved the abacus. He also loves calculators. So he’ll often work with these during math. It’s great exercise for his fingers. I try to keep something in his hands all the time to build his coordination. I’m willing to try anything that might help this child.”

Barbara Pearson didn’t always have this attitude. “At first I just hoped he wouldn’t be in my class,” she says. “I thought it would be a waste of time and money. I guess I was afraid, too. And I found his drooling sort of offensive. But this little guy is making progress. I know some other teachers look at me and shake their heads, but it’s so worth it. You should see Andrew’s face when the rest of the children are singing their multiplication tables. He just loves it.”

Still, there are lots of things to work out and, Pearson admits, it isn’t always easy. She is learning to be “braver and better” about speaking directly to Andrew; at the same time, she doesn’t want to conflict with the direction he is getting from his aide. And some of the children are simply too smothering with him. “They just adore him,” says Pearson, “but I have to remind them he’s not a doll. He needs help sometimes, but they need to do all they can to treat him like they treat each other.” And, too, adapting the curriculum is an ongoing challenge.

Part of Jeff Libby’s job is to be on hand to assist teachers and aides with ideas. He will often drop in to watch how a lesson is conducted and to make suggestions appropriate for the particular child. “He is an absolutely crucial part of the effort,” says Mr. T. One of the biggest arguments against inclusion, Libby points out, is that disabled students can acquire more skills within an isolated setting where there will be fewer distractions and more opportunity for repetition and multiple presentations.

“People will argue that to the end, but,” he points out, “you teach things in isolation, and they’re only good in isolation. “You could probably take Andrew into a closet and teach him to count to ten with little blocks, but would he be able to count out 10 pennies at the checkout counter in the store? It doesn’t do any of these kids any good to learn something behind a partition where nobody’s bothering them and they can succeed, if they can’t take it out and use it. It’s more important that they be able to stop and shake hands with somebody. That’s communication.”

Changing Attitudes
When Andrew’s class lines up for lunch, one of the girls pulls him into line. He makes a face. She makes a face right back at him. Typical kids. Andrew gets help from his aide carrying his tray through the lunch line. When he goes looking for an empty seat, some of the children slide over to make room for him. He takes the long way around the table before he sits down. Nobody seems to notice. And nobody seems to mind that he’s not the world’s neatest eater.

When he’s finished, he joins the others on the playground, dashing first to a game of wall ball, then wandering off by himself, then hooking up with another group of kids goofing around in the far corner of the field. He roams quite a bit, but doesn’t have trouble joining small groups now and then. Andrew’s aide stands near the building watching, along with the other teachers on duty. Recess, she points out, is one of Andrew’s biggest accomplishments. “When he first came to Conant,” says Hanscomb, “he’d stand around with the adults during recess. He didn’t know how to be a kid. We really had to encourage him to go and play. Today he’s the first one to dash out there.”

After recess, before the afternoon reading session, Andrew makes a trip to the bathroom. On the wall, in what used to be the faculty bathroom, there is a list of names and times—the daily bathroom schedule for the five students with disabilities who attend Conant School. The faculty bathroom, combined with an old supply closet, created a new space large enough to manuever a wheelchair in. It is clean and neat, and it is shared by students and teachers.

That little list represents a dramatic shift in attitude. At this school, students with disabilites are not the sole responsibility of a special education teacher who “knows how to handle them.” These children are members of a community that feels responsibility—and affection—for them. And that makes all the difference. Jan Nisbet is director of the Institute on Disability, a collaborative effort by the New Hampshire Bureau of Special Education, the Division of Health and Human Services and others. She is adamant about the need for all of us —families, schools, communities—to learn a new approach.

“Part of the problem in the past has been the way we train our teachers. Look at our university systems,” she says. “We have two different programs for certification – one for special ed and one for regular ed. We are setting teachers up at the beginning of their training to think that they’re separate, when in fact they are not.” Nisbet advocates a move toward teacher preparation that incorporates diversity – not just cultural diversity but intellectual, social, and emotional diversity as well. “Regular classroom teachers need more information in their college experience on kids with disabilites. And we also need to learn to think in terms of ‘intensity of support.’ Instead of labeling someone as mentally retarded, you say, ‘He needs a lot of support to learn. And then you train teachers to provide that support.”

You also train families. “Kids belong in families,” says Nisbet. “They don’t belong in institutions or group homes.” But families with children in need of tremendous support need support themselves. For many of them, the task of caring for a specialneeds child is overwhelming. New Hampshire offers a number of support systems, including a Family Leadership Series sponsored by the Institute, which provides training to parents of children with special needs. This approach to caring is radically different from the “institution solution” of the recent past.

Robert T. Kennedy, New Hampshire’s director of special education services, takes the long view when he looks at the benefits of inclusive education. “If you go through the process of segregating students, you’ll have to go through a reentry process which may not take at 18 or 21 years of age. The community may not accept them. They may not know how to behave. Families won’t be prepared to cope.” Nisbet puts it bluntly: “Kids who are educated separately end up living separate lives.”

The Shape of the Future
One of Beth Dixon’s favorite stories is about Andrew’s first Halloween party. “At one point, the kids were all standing in line playing this game where you throw velcro balls at a dart board. When it was Andrew’s turn, he walked up, placed his ball right in the middle of the board and scored 100 points. One of the parents said, ‘He didn’t throw it.’ It was the kids who said, ‘That’s okay. He did it.’ After another turn or two, they were adding up the points and announcing the winners. Suddenly the kids started yelling, ‘No, no, no! Andrew won the game.’ I wasn’t sure what to do, but the host parents turned to Andrew, who had gotten the most points, and gave him the first prize. There wasn’t a single kid there who complained that he didn’t throw the ball.”

Stories like these prove that an inclusive approach to education can change lives in profound ways. “I always tell kids—and adults, too—that we’re building a society,” says Libby, who points out that lots of adults don’t know how to act around people with disabilities. “When these kids grow up, they’re going to walk down the street and they’ll know Andrew, they’ll know how to say ‘hi.’ They’re going to be the mayors and the store owners, and they’re going to hire these people because they remember them and know what they’re capable of and what support they might need. We’re teaching kids to go out into the world.”

The whole idea behind inclusive education demands that we consider children’s lives – their whole lives. After elementary school comes junior high, then high school. Eventually children grow up. They need fulfilling adult experiences. “Kids like Andrew can look forward to living on their own someday,” says Nisbet, “signing a lease, having a job, knowing friends.” The world that Andrew grows up to live in will be different because the education of the grownups living in it will have been different.

There’s still much progress to be made. But today, thanks to the efforts of many dedicated people—parents, educators, administrators, and students—Andrew Dixon, plus Shawn, Alicia, Ryan, Todd, and others, are learning and growing in their neighborhood schools along with typical children their own age. These are youngsters who, in the past, would have been confined to segregated classrooms or, worse, doomed to a life of institutionalization. Instead, they sit in classes with friends. They stroll or roll down the hall. They are learning to pay attention and participate. They are greeted by other students. They have names. They are people.

Equally important, those who know these children are learning to be more tolerant. They are discovering new reserves of patience and caring, finding that it’s possible to see beyond physical appearances, developing creative ways to communicate, experiencing the joy of reaching out. Inclusive education makes all these things possible. And for those who know Andrew Dixon, it means one more thing—perhaps the best thing of all—it means they get to hear the sound of his laughter.