The virtues of beginning early

River Forest's District 90 fosters inclusivity with its youngest students

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By Lacey Sikora 'Connects'

Contributing Reporter

Victoria Bynum has been teaching preschool for 15 years, the last three of those at River Forest's Willard School, and says that during her career, inclusive preschool classrooms have been considered the best practice for children. Her classroom includes children with IEPs (Individual Education Plans) and identified special needs as well as students without IEPs. At Willard, the full inclusion model means that all of the students that receive special therapies receive them in the classroom rather than being pulled out of the classroom.

Bynum teaches two sections of preschool, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Each class is made up of approximately 15 students aged three to five-years old. 

Denise Matthews, D90s special ed director, says the state identifies children who might qualify for special education slots at district preschools.  Children who receive therapies through early intervention services before the age of three are evaluated by the school district when they turn three. Once special education services are deemed necessary, those children can enter the district's preschool program upon reaching three years of age. Students without special needs are eligible to enter the district preschool system if they turn three before the start of the school year. All students can remain in the preschool for the two years prior to entering kindergarten.

According to Matthews, the state caps class size at 20 students in inclusionary preschool classes and mandates that no more than 30 percent of students in the class have an IEP.  Willard's established pre-school program has recently been augmented by an inclusionary preschool class held at the River Forest Community Center. Matthews says the morning and afternoon sessions at the RFCC follows a similar model to that used at Willard, in which students with special education needs are in class with typically developed peers.

From Bynum's perspective at Willard, an inclusive classroom is beneficial for students and teachers alike. She says that working in the classroom with the various therapists results in a collaboration. "There's a good flow between us. I learn from them, and they learn from me."

For the children, she says receiving therapeutic services in the classrooms gives them a sense of stability. "They get a good sense of belonging because they're not in flux constantly, moving in and out of the classroom."

Importantly, she says that all students, not just those with special needs, are having a better school experience in an inclusive classroom. "Students without special needs just see a valuable member of the community sitting next to them. They see a diverse community. Everyone contributes," says Bynum.

She says one of the goals of preschool is building on functions for all children, and the inclusive classroom allows children with special needs to reach that goal. "Another big benefit is the generalization of skills. If children are taught something in a pull-out situation, in a quiet setting all on their own, it can be difficult to translate those skills in a classroom full of their peers," she says.

If they learn and hone those skills in a classroom setting, she says they get the necessary practice they need to use their abilities in the general community. 

Jess Tyrrell, a parent whose twin sons Caden and Jameson are in Bynum's class, says she has seen those benefits in her boys. Both boys received speech therapy before preschool, and Jameson received other therapies that have continued in the preschool setting.  Tyrrell says, "It's really great for kids with therapeutic needs to get that in the social setting of the classroom. You can't have one without the other. To be successful, you need the school aspect. It doesn't translate if you're getting therapy in an isolated environment."

As her sons move into their second year at Willard's preschool, she says that she has seen them make good progress with Bynum and the therapists. "I've seen them make such a difference. It's been night and day."

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