It wasn't long ago that schoolchildren who had a disability were shuffled off to a separate classroom where they were taught away from other children.
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That isn't the case any more.
Riverbend Elementary School is looking for children to join their integrated preschool program. The children, ages 3 to 4, will be integrated in one of several classes with children who have disabilities and will act as peer role models.
Carmen Katasse, principal of Riverbend, said the program embraces inclusion and diversity.
"It's a really true representation of the world, of how the world should be," she said. "We have kids with different and variable abilities. We're really a model district as far as inclusion."
Integration serves two major purposes, said Dana Moats, one of the program's teachers. Children with special needs learn to model the behavior of children who are "typically functional." The peers learn not to stigmatize others.
"He or she gets to see that everybody is not the same," Moats said. "It reduces stereotypes and fears about somebody who might be different. The kids don't really recognize them as something that is unusual."
The integrated program works on a "play-based model" of learning, Moats said. The children take a variety of classes, including gym, music, reading, writing and arts and crafts. They also participate in role-playing classes and have a family-style snack time where they are taught manners.
"We really focus on the social interaction part of learning," Moats said.
Riverbend is looking for 16 children to be peers. The children will be matched one on one with a special-needs student. Peers must be bathroom trained, must communicate verbally and have social skills normal for a 3- to 4-year-old. The enrollment cost for peers is $62.50 per month. There are 16 students in each class.
"We're looking for a child that is typically functioning," Moats said.
"We want kids who are able to model social interaction," Katasse added.
The program is funded federally, and is staffed not only by teachers but also by speech, physical and occupational therapists and classroom assistants.
"There's never less than four adults in a room (with the children)," Moats said.
Moats, who has been teaching the program for two years, said it is very rewarding. The best part she said is "getting to know the student and designing their program.
"I've never been in a job where I've seen so much growth in a student in such a short time."