Impact Impact: Feature Issue on Early Childhood Education and Children with Disabilities
Nineteen Years of Inclusion Programming:
Coralwood School in Decatur, Georgia
On a typical day at Coralwood School, a public school in Decatur, Georgia, you will see preschool students teaching their classmates, therapists working in the classroom, parents volunteering, and staff consulting with each other on the best approach to teach a specific child. Every day you will see students excited about their work and play, and teachers proudly displaying student work. Learning is fun, active and engaging at Coralwood.
Coralwood School has specialized in teaching 3- to 6-year-olds with disabilities for 36 years. Inclusion programming began in 1990 when school administrators realized typical students would provide the missing link to a high quality education. Today, over 215 students attend the school, which not only offers an inclusive program, but also accentuates the fine arts, especially the performing arts, in its curriculum.
Coralwood provides preschool inclusion grounded in maximizing the potential of every student. Our philosophy is based on the premise that school can be informal and individualized for all students and still provide a high quality education. Children are innately curious and Coralwood desires to help our students understand and explore their environment in a safe manner. Students progress at different rates and have different interests and learning styles. Coralwood addresses the cognitive, language, motor, self-help and personal-social facets of each child, and celebrates abilities and gifts of all students.
Young Students Accept Differences
Our young students do not really notice differences in their classmates. Disabilities are not a defining factor to children. A disability is much like hair or eye color – it is just another dimension to a friend. Many typical students have best friends with disabilities, and parents have repeatedly said they did not know that their child's best friend was blind, or used a wheelchair. To a typically-developing child, a child with a special need is just another friend. Our students with disabilities view their typical peers as accepting friends who do not hesitate to give a helping hand when needed.
Parents are a School's Best Resource
When you enter the door at Coralwood you will feel the energy and excitement that makes our school special. We are more than a community for young students; we are a community for families.
Active parent involvement is expected at Coralwood. Helping in classrooms, serving on committees, sharing skills and interests with students, mentoring new parents, being a mystery reader, or contributing food for the many special occasions are a few of the ways parents become involved. In addition, the Parent Council Executive Board is comprised of parents of typical and special needs students, and parents of former students continue to serve on the Parent Council or the Coralwood Foundation.
Volunteering at Coralwood is a great way for parents to become acquainted with staff and their child's classmates and to see the school in action. Parents have the opportunity to meet the parents of their child's classmates, and parents and students make friendships that go beyond their years at Coralwood.
The Collaborative Process
Coralwood is committed to a collaborative process that integrates the best available scientific research in early schooling with the expertise of practitioners and families. Staff continually assess current programming and consult with each other to determine the best strategies for specific students. Parents learn how to support their child in a school setting, and work with other team members to facilitate solving problems at home.
In our experience with inclusion programming during the past 19 years, we have learned some important lessons:
- All students benefit from an inclusive setting.
- Students with disabilities learn at a higher level when with typical peers.
- Typical students develop leadership skills at an early age and learn to appreciate students with different abilities.
- Each classroom should include students with diverse disabilities.
- Only teachers interested in a challenge should be considered for inclusion classes because regular and special education teachers must learn new strategies for meeting the needs of all students.
- Practitioners must be flexible in their thinking/practice, be willing to try new approaches, and take pride in solving problems.
- Practitioners must work collaboratively to develop learning plans and resolve any challenges in the classroom.
- Parents are valuable resources at the classroom level and school level.
- It's important to engage parents in as many school and social activities as possible.
- Parents are the experts on their students and they learn valuable lessons and skills from the close relationships with the staff and other parents.
Coralwood's model is replicable, and its successes have been proven both in our students' achievement and in the community's response to this type of program as evidenced by a high demand to enter the school. Additionally, the Governor's Office of Student Achievement in Georgia has recognized Coralwood with its highest award – Platinum – for the past four years in acknowledgment of student achievement.