Commentary: Henderson families, district staff at odds over meaning of inclusion

What is happening at the Henderson School?  It’s a question on a lot of people’s minds these days. The answer will vary greatly depending on whom you ask, especially at this moment when tensions are running high between families and district staff. 

I am writing as an active Henderson parent and husband of Courtney Feeley Karp, who is an elected parent rep on both the governing board and the Head of School hiring committee.  We love and greatly appreciate the Henderson, but like many families we are deeply concerned about its future.

The William H. Henderson K-12 Inclusion School is a nationally renowned model for fully inclusive education.  Educators from around the world have visited to see how the school includes students with a wide range of disabilities in every classroom through co-teaching and Universal Design for Learning. The school has been highlighted in recent documentary films, such as “Intelligent Lives” and “Forget Me Not,” and held up as exemplary by scholars such as Tom Hehir, who for decades documented the benefits of full inclusion for all students.

This school has the power to transform lives.  My family has experienced this since our daughter started there at age three, when she was non-verbal, used a posterior walker to navigate her classroom, and was fed exclusively by G-tube.  During the last seven years, we have gotten to know countless other families with similar stories of their children being welcomed, celebrated, and supported by caring and skilled teachers and therapists.  One parent on the Governing Board moved here from California so her son could experience the Henderson Way.

The Boston Public Schools is currently engaged in a process of becoming a more inclusive district, a laudable goal but one that needs to be pursued with care. One would think the district would look to the Henderson School as a replicable model and a source of learning given our celebrated history. Instead, district staff keep telling us that our school needs to change the way we do things. Despite being an autonomous Innovation School under state law, the district has been making decisions that are pulling us away from the core values and pedagogy that make our school truly innovative.

For example, our Inclusion Planning Team (IPT) called for creation of a non-inclusive resource room to be staffed by a full-time specialist to provide pull out services. Our IPT was also one of only a handful across the city that did not request any additional funding from the district, despite significant budget cuts we’re currently facing. As a result, we are being forced to adopt practices we have never used at our school, while cutting back on arts and enrichment programs called for in both our mission statement and Innovation Plan.

Parents have been raising concerns about these decisions for months, but district officials seem to have little interest in engaging us. Our questions are consistently met with non-answers or misleading statements that have greatly undermined trust. 

According to district presentations to the governing board, the Henderson must provide pull-out services because it’s legally required to offer a continuum of services to all students.  But this misconstrues the law, which requires the district, not each individual school, to provide a continuum of placements to all students. The Henderson meets individual students’ needs through “push in” interventions that are seamlessly integrated with classroom activities. If students are pulled out of the classroom, for example to get physical therapy in our motor-sensory room, they are invited to bring a friend so that the activity is still inclusive.

It sometimes feels like we are speaking a different language than the district is. BPS seems to think of inclusion solely as a way to deliver special education services, rather than a pedagogy that benefits all students. At the Henderson, inclusion is not about checking a box or meeting numeric minimums. Inclusion is a way to be in community together, to celebrate that difference is normal, and appreciate that we all thrive when everyone is welcomed and fully included. District leaders could learn a great deal from our experience, but to do so they would need to lead with more curiosity and less judgment.

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