"If justice requires it, we must bend all our efforts to make sure that it is done, even if it proves costly." --Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice
In her comment on my last post about preschools, Jims said,
The walking requirement is really odd. What would these schools do in the event that they have prospective students who will never walk or whose walking ability will always be limited?What an excellent question! One I myself considered as several different preschools objected to the non-walking Maybelle being in a class with 18 month to three year old kiddos. The walking prerequisite is rarely specified in writing in the preschools' paperwork, but it's generally voiced as you're getting the tour--and I will specify that it's voiced after we've let the staff know that Maybelle has Down syndrome.* "Yeah, the kids need to be able to walk," the staff will tell us. One place even said, "You can see that they have to be able to carry their own stuff around." A common refrain was, "We just don't have the resources to carry the kids around."
Not having the resources. Jims' question came to my mind on every single tour we did: what if Maybelle didn't have Down syndrome but were a kid born without legs, or with lower-body paralysis? Would she simply be excluded from this school? Would she have to stay in the infant classroom through high school? Study for her SATs while around her, little sweet-faced infants gnaw on their pacifiers? I never asked these questions out loud (in part because I was trying to make a happy parent good impression), but I strongly suspect that the answer would be, "We just don't have the resources."
What does the need to walk really mean? The kids have to be able to get around. Aren't there many, many ways for kids to get around? In a wheelchair, for instance, or, in the case of a certain member of our household, by very eager and enthusiastic crawling? These schools demand a certain kind of kid, a kid with a certain kind of skills. This kid, and those skills, are defined as "normal," and "normal" doesn't require extra resources.**
At one of the schools we toured, I was very happy to hear about a program they've instituted to include children on the autism spectrum in each of their classes. In fact, I was delighted! This piece of information immediately put this school on the top of my list: not only are you believers in full inclusion, but you are actively making an effort to make this a strength and a contribution of your school!
The person giving us the tour said, "Yes, and you'll see that in every classroom the child with autism has a 'shadow'--an adult assigned to help with his or her special needs."
I thought, well, okay. The kids I saw didn't seem to need all that much extra adult attention, but couldn't hurt, right? "And the shadows are staff members of the school?" I asked.
"Well, not really," our tour guide said. "The families of the children with autism pay the salaries of the shadows. That's one of the requirements for their kids to come to the school."
Ummm...so these parents are shelling out somewhere in the neighborhood of $950 a month for their child to be in one of the best preschools in Charleston, and then they're paying the salary of a full-time nanny for their child, as well? I was appalled. I am appalled. The more I think about it, the more appalled I become.
And this wasn't the only school with this policy--at least one other school we toured also had a "shadow" program for their kids with disabilities. These schools have obviously decided that the resources needed for kids with disabilities are full-time adult caregivers, and that the people responsible for providing these resources are that child's parents. These schools didn't, for instance, decide (like our #1 and #2 school choices) that shadows are unnecessary. They also didn't decide that, if extra care is needed, they'd charge every family in their school a little more so that the cost would be shared. They didn't decide that it's the right of every child to receive the best education possible, and that the responsibilities for this right should be shared.
I get that the schools we're examining are private schools, so they've already decided that it's not the right of every child to receive that excellent education--only children from financially comfortable families.*** I also get--hurray!--that our public schools are required to provide individualized support for Maybelle and every other child, no matter what needs they have.**** But the thing I'm wrestling with here is justice. Not resources, but justice. Resources are squishy, fluid, can be defined and directed in many ways. Justice has a little more stability, and is far more important. It is the right thing for our educational systems to treat all children as worthy, and to question how their resources can be used best to meet the needs of each individual child in a classroom.
*The fact that it's not in the paperwork and not mentioned initially suggests to me that these schools haven't necessarily considered this normative standard they're imposing on their kids. It must just seem obvious to them--"Of course all 18-month-olds can walk!"
**When Biffle and I attended Buddy Camp last summer, a camp for kids with DS and their friends who don't have disabilities, there was one kid there who did, in fact, require the attention of one adult the whole time. And guess what: he was one of the typical kids.
***Rest assured that I'll have another post about this.
****I know, although not yet from personal experience, that the public schools don't always do the greatest job of working with kids with disabilities, but the fact that it's their mandate is certainly worth celebrating.