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Civil Rights and the Best Preschool

As we walked away from Penny's annual IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting yesterday, I said to Peter, "I think Penny goes to the best pre-school in the nation."

I'm not kidding. For an hour, five professionals sat in a conference room and talked about our child. The child development expert, her classroom teacher, her speech therapist, occupational therapist and physical therapist. Each of them knows Penny. They know that she's stubborn. That she likes to be in control. That she's funny and smart and playful. They told me things I didn't know. For example, "When we have free time, Penny likes to climb into the teacher's chair and read a book to the class. She holds the book open and points to the words as she reads." Or, from the speech therapist, "Penny doesn't really like the toys or puzzles. She just likes words, so sometimes I let her sit in my chair and lead the other kids. She asks them questions from the cards we're using." The PT is working on hopping. The OT on using scissors and buttons and writing letters.

Let me point out that these services are free of charge. Forty years ago, we might not have been able to send Penny to school at all. We stand on the shoulders of pioneering parents who advocated for the rights of their children to receive a free education. Penny's pre-school exists because the government has mandated education for children with special needs, and that education comes in a classroom setting once they turn 3. In Penny's case, she goes to a classroom with 8 "typically-developing peers" and a handful of other children who receive specialized services of some sort. Their teachers–young, motivated, recently trained–use the "Tools of the Mind" curriculum (which I highly recommend. Click here for a recent review in the NYTimes Magazine). She has music, art, and a weekly visit to the library, in addition to all those specialized services I mentioned above.

How is this possible? How is it possible that as a community, we provide so much for one child? I know that my story is not the story of every parent of a child with special needs. And yet I can also attest that my friends who have kids with Down syndrome have similar situations. Yes, on some level, this education is Penny's legal right. On another level, it is over the top. The only reason it makes any sense for us as a culture, as a community, to offer so much must be because we believe that it is valuable for the whole community that children with special needs learn. Maybe even more so, it is valuable that children with special needs learn in the context of a community that includes "typical" kids too. In other words, at least theoretically, when those five adults gather with me to discuss Penny's progress and goals, it isn't just Penny we're caring for. We're also caring for Sarah and Landon and James and Maya.

Penny walks into class every morning and selects her name and answers a question. The question might be "How old are you?" (which she reads out loud, pointing to each word), or "Are you wearing red?" She places her name near the correct answer, and proceeds to a play area nearby. Over the course of the day, she will draw and sing and pretend to be a cashier ("grocery store" is the current dramatic play option). She will come home and tell me about it. She'll teach me a song: "This is the way we rake the leaves," or draw circles and color them in, or dance in front of the window and narrate a pretend story.

And once again I will be grateful for this nation, for the sacrifices of many who went before, and for the wide community of people who offer love to our child.

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