By Ann Harkin, Special Education Director
This is the Westport Elementary school. Why is a student riding a bicycle along the corridors of the elementary school?
The Westport Elementary School is the location of a special education classroom for some very special children. Their special education programs are designed to maximize their opportunities to experience the learning and fun of attending their neighborhood school. These students have severe multiple disabilities which may impact their abilities to walk, run and physically play with their friends and classmates. They spend most of their day in wheelchairs or standers.
These students did not always attend a school like Westport Elementary that has a mix of children with and without disabilities. They attended special education schools where all of the children had disabilities. The special education schools were able to provide special education services and therapies but not an educational experience that includes interacting, learning and making friends with children who live in their community who are not disabled.
At WES, the students each receive instruction and services according to their Individual Education Plan (IEP), as they did in the special education schools. It’s the location of the classroom within a public school which adds a dimension to their learning that can only come from being exposed to the same academic and social interactions side-by-side with non-disabled children.
So several years ago, the district created the vision to educate all special education students residing in Westport within the local public school system, except for those whose disabilities are so severe and needs so great, that the district is unable to meet their needs. A plan was developed to make it happen.
Over the past four years, the district’s therapy program was revamped and in-district staff with experience and high qualifications in the areas of nursing, psychology, behavior, speech/ language, occupational therapy, physical therapy and the visually impaired were hired.
The approach was two-pronged: Develop in-district programming that meets or exceeds that provided in specialty separate special education schools, and use that programming to meet the needs of severely disabled students who already attend the Westport Community Schools or to bring students back into the district who were placed out because in-district programming could not meet their needs in the past.
There are now classrooms for students with severe disabilities in each of Westport’s schools. All of the students are included in instructional or social activities with students without disabilities during some part of their day.
At WES, this special class also has the opportunity to experience the same ‘fun’ experiences like riding the swing at recess, wheelchair and all, or leaving the wheelchair or stander behind and bike along the corridors at the WES, laughing, smiling, and experiencing the awesomeness of learning with friends.