The Road To Inclusion:Kindness as Learning

As he slowly made his way to the stage, there was an awkward silence in our auditorium. Marco (alias) shuffled his feet and beamed a radiant smile as he held tightly to Catarina, his 1:1 assistant. Marco has recently become a part time student at our school. He is taking theater, ceramics and PE, in addition to attending our weekly assemblies. This was his first day, and Marco's dad and brother were on stage introducing him to our community. Marco has a rare neuro-genetic disorder called Angelman Syndrome: he is non-verbal, has reduced fine and gross motor skills, and must take medication to prevent seizures. Marco's brother started. "If there is one thing that you need to know about my brother, it is that he is the kindest person I know." Marco moved onto the stage behind his dad and started to clap, and on cue, our students did the same. Marco's face lit up.

His dad went on to explain to our students how they will all be Marco's teachers. He will learn from them "how to behave in class, how to be a curious and hardworking student, and how to be a friend." He also challenged our students to think about what it would be like if "you had so much to say, but no voice or no words to express those sentiments." As I looked into our audience that day, I could see that Marco had touched a chord. The glazed eyes and nodding heads told me that on that single day he had already had an enduring impact on all of us. As they left the stage to loud applause, I reminded our students of Marco's brother's words. While they will certainly be Marco's teachers, he will also teach us. Perhaps we can learn the ways that kindness can conquer limits.

Marco's journey to the our school began last year, when we hosted Bill and Ochan Powell, from the Next Frontier Initiative (NFI) for an audit of our student support services. The mission of the NFI is to "promote and protect the interests of children who learn in different ways or at different supporting schools in all aspects of their journey towards inclusion." After spending a week at our school and gathering data from all stakeholders, they issued a report that provides our school with a road map on how to move forward. Since that time we have invested in differentiation training for our teachers, and developed a draft inclusion statement that says: "The American School of Paris believes that a high quality education is a basic human right of all children. Including students with diverse learning needs is fundamental to who we are and how we build a compassionate and rich learning community." We also made the decision to experiment with a part time schedule for Marco.

Marco has now been with us for about one month. Each day one of our students picks him up at the gate and accompanies him to class. He arrives full of energy, curiosity and determination, and he follows no script. He regularly distributes bear hugs, and we have learned that in order for him to release his grasp we must count "one, two three". Marco has made a pinch pot, participated in our 7th grade Holi Festival, and taken part in PE and theater classes.

We have a long way to go in order to be a truly inclusive school, but our month with Marco has been instructive. He has helped us break a barrier, and now we are willing to take greater risks. The path will certainly be winding, but as long as we pause regularly to assess and adapt, we will keep on moving in the right direction. According to our Learning Support teacher, Alice Schuette, who has been instrumental in creating our transition plan for Marco " He helps us grow, not just in our understanding of what including differences means, but helps our hearts grow too."

We are very thankful to Marco's family for their willingness to teach us about how to embrace difference and become a more humane school community. We are also indebted to Bill and Ochan Powell for starting such important conversations at our school. Sadly, soon after our school visit, Bill Powell passed away. ASP was the last school that he worked with. There is no doubt in my mind that his legacy lives on in our everyday work.