Chime Institute

Alejandra Delaporte of ABILITY’s operation in South America recently visited CHIME, a charter school in California’s San Fernando Valley that promises quality education for all. She spoke with Annie Cox, the executive director of Early Education Programs, and Erin Studer, executive director of Charter School Programs.

Alejandra Delaporte: Tell me a bit about how CHIME came to be.

Annie Cox: The CHIME Institute is a nonprofit organization that started back in 1990. Prior to that, we had secured a U.S. Department of Education grant from ’87 to ’90 through two California State University at Northridge (CSUN) professors; it allowed us to look at preschool inclusion. The question we were exploring was how to support young children with disabilities in a typical early education program, so we did our own initial assessments while providing services to the community, mostly in the San Fernando Valley area.

At the end of the grant, we found that there were not a lot of options for parents who wanted to send their children to an inclusive school; at the same time, there was research that supported inclusion for young children with disabilities.

Delaporte: Was this before the Americans with Disabilities Act or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?

Cox: Yes. It was 1975, when the Education for All Handicapped Children Act began making sure that children with disabilities got an education. In the late ’80s, the word “inclusion” wasn’t even used; at the time we talked about “mainstreaming” children, especially in preschool. The rationale was that at that age they’re young, so why can’t they learn together? It kind of makes sense. By the time CHIME started, there was already some really good research saying: If it’s a high-quality early education program, it’s good for all kids.

So after the grant ran out in ’90, the local school district didn’t have a lot of integrated—to use one of the words from that time—or inclusive options. So we started our preschool program. We’re on the CSUN campus, a training site for university students. We still do a lot of training, and we have observation rooms, where people can watch.

Delaporte: Observing so they can study the process?

Cox: Yes. It’s a laboratory preschool and training site, and we can have 10 people in an observation room, listening to what’s going on without coming into the classroom and disrupting the model.

Delaporte: Is it done with a one-way mirror?

Cox: Yes. We had high school students visiting, and they said, “This is just like CSI.” (laughs) In the room where the children are, the wall looks just like a mirror, but on the other side we can see through it, and listen with headphones. It’s great for parents, too, because kids can behave very differently at school than they do at home.

Delaporte: I’ve heard that schools convince some parents of children with disabilities that it’s not convenient for their child to be mainstreamed. The experience of observing what actually happens in the classroom must be very enlightening.

Cox: And revealing... For instance, if the child with the disability is the parents’ first child, they may think that an issue is disability-related, when it’s just a kid issue. It may just be about being three- or four-years-old, and to realize that really changes things.

“It’s okay, developmentally, that my child does this at this time.” Separation issues—any child that age might experience that. And it’s not to discount the fact that the child has special needs, but it’s to say, Okay, there’s a common denominator there.

We have a contract with CSUN to be a training site. So we have really strong connections with the university, and we are constantly being visited by people from
other countries, as well as by teachers and administrators locally. We would like to have staff members dedicated to outreach, training and research.

Delaporte: Some teachers have the mind-set that including children with disabilities is going to be too difficult, so gathering their own evidence that inclusion works, is perfect. It seems that you could create YouTube—

Cox: —training modules, absolutely. And those are the kinds of things that we really want to do more of and formalize. We’re thinking about having an inclusion institute, maybe next year, where we announce: “Come and see our preschool, our infant and toddler program, come and see our charter school, and get the latest research and best practices in the field.”

By law, when you talk about creating the least restrictive environment in the US for children and families, this type of approach needs to be considered. But sometimes there either are administrators or teachers who have not had the experience with inclusion, and their lack of exposure gets in the way.

When we talk to families, it’s about creating a community where there is respect, understanding and a feeling that we’re all in this together. We are doing this because we care about each other’s children, we care about each other, and we know what is the best. Some of the research is showing that when you talk about a team approach or the co-teaching approach in general education and special education, everybody benefits.

For example, say there’s an occupational therapist coming in, and it may be about one target child in the classroom and maybe that child needs some modifications or some adaptations in the classroom. Well, very often, other children in the classroom benefit from those modifications, as well.

Delaporte: What percentage of your students have disabilities would you say?

Cox: We want our programs to reflect the world, where about 15 percent to 20 percent of people have a disability. So depending on what statistics you use—say 15 percent—that’s roughly the percentage we’re going for in our classrooms.

Delaporte: If you have the right percentage set in a classroom, and another child acquires a disability, do you shift them out of that class?

Cox: No, we don’t. But you bring up an interesting point. Sometimes you talk to people and if they don’t know somebody with a disability, or if they haven’t encountered a person with one—usually in the form of a close relative—then they don’t know much about it. That has shifted a lot with university students.

I’ve been part of CHIME for over 20 years now, and at the beginning we talked to these young university students. “How many of you have had the experience of a person with a disability at school? Did you have any other students around you who had disabilities?” They’d say “those students” were in a different room, a different school, a bus that picked them up and took them to a different place. But that’s starting to change, as is the world.

Delaporte: Perhaps there is a feeling now that we have to do right by all of our children.

Cox: Right. And what do we do with our grandparents as they get older? What is our philosophy? I think there’s definitely a philosophical angle to these matters.

There’s also a good deal of research that says that kids who learn together also learn from each other, and for kids without disabilities, there is a social opportunity in terms of the friendships they form. Children don’t notice a difference. It’s not that we’re hiding the difference, but sometimes they just don’t focus on it. So-and-so just happens to have a wheelchair, and So-and-so just happens to talk with a voice-output device, and So-and-so is my buddy.

We had a little girl in our preschool program whose father passed away, and she was nonverbal with a diagnosis of autism. Coming to school was important for her, because home was a sad reminder of her loss. Still, once in a while, she would cry at school. So the other kids in the classroom figured out what her favorite song was, and sang it to her when she cried. Nobody taught them that. Yet somehow they figured out that if somebody falls down, you can help them back up. We see that beautiful side of human nature all the time.

Delaporte: And what a difference that will make when those children become adults, and interact with the world!

Cox: Some of the parents are working with us to make a new film about CHIME, and they were interviewing different kids and parents, and some of the parents found a common thread about belonging and being part of this family. They were using the word “family,” so the person working on the film said, “I think we should call it, ‘This Is the Way the World Should Be,” (laughs) which was kind of cute.

Special education in this country came about because people with disabilities fought as a group for educational rights and parity. Putting students in a separate classroom is not transparent enough: What curriculum is being taught in that other classroom, and what is the message you are sending if you separate children at a very young age and then try to reintegrate them at 18 or 22 years old?

Delaporte: They won’t be used to each other, and they won’t have bonded as much as they would have, had they been educated together.

Cox: Yes, our approach benefits everybody. One of the interviews we did for the film was with a mom in our infant-toddler program who started a Mommy and Me group that didn’t have any kids with disabilities, but her son has a disability and she felt pressure for him to be like everybody else. She also felt bad that the situation wasn’t working out. So coming into our program, she relaxed, and her son relaxed, and she felt like: “This is going to be okay.”

Delaporte: Differences are not only accepted but rewarded.

Cox: Right. So that’s what we’re trying to do. When our preschool started in 1990, parents whose children reached kindergarten age were looking into an inclusive option for kindergarten and sometimes finding none. Every family was almost starting anew, and each family was a little bit different, and often lived at a distance from one another.

Given that it is a large school district, some people tried to put the pieces together. A few were successful. Some were not. They asked, “Where do we go? What do we do?” And it brought families together. In fact, it was while standing in front of the preschool that parents, who were talking, talking, talking, got together with the founders of CHIME and decided to start a charter school. That was in 2001.

Delaporte: If the law says that the public school system should have this integration already in place, who’s blocking it? Teachers? Administration?

Cox: That’s difficult to say. An Individual Education Plan always guides the process. So typically we do an assessment where we look at a child’s strengths and needs, and then we set goals for them, and discuss services and the placement that will be needed. But even when parents (or others) are pushing for integration, sometimes pieces of the puzzle are missing.

If the plan is not set up properly, then it might not work, and parents feel the pressure. For instance, the general education teacher might say, “I’m not sure what to do with this student. I need some help.” And what is the role of the special education teacher? Is it to stop by once a week? That might not be sufficient.

Delaporte: Do schools lack the financial resources to support children who may have more complex needs?

Cox: That’s part of it; families are offered a whole gamut of choices in terms of placement decisions—anything from nonpublic schools, which tend to be more intensive in their support of children with disabilities, to the regular classroom.

Sometimes schools simply tell families: “This is what we have to offer.” And families, feeling like it’s not enough, get disappointed. The process of finding the right fit can.
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