The Beginning

Day 125

Part 2 – True Adventures Yet To Be Lived

Chapter 17: The Beginning

The original disheartened admission of the need for a school on the fringes of public ed, dedicated to children and youth with varying needs, was certainly not Jack’s brainchild.

Jack spent three years advocating for the Ministry and local Boards to drive both feet into the air brakes of their misguided inclusion train, and reverse decisions to close facilities offering these inspiring, alternative settings. He ran in the Municipal election on mostly that premise, won, and the first task he tackled was just that.

He  desperately attempted to help his new colleagues see their need to reconsider. Countless emails were sent over many weeks. Images were attached, of the inclusion everyone understood – a Down syndrome cheerleader, in contrast with a snapshot of the last graduating class of of the student body he was advocating for. The children looked no different than any other except each child had a learning disability. Lastly, Jack cited research based on the other side of the discussion, and advice from regarded professionals in the field of special education warning against forced inclusion.

This was the story that could not have been shared with Trustees the previous term, for if they had known of works similar to James Kauffman M., ED. and Daniel Hallahan, P., ED., had they followed stories from neighboring boards and how when faced with a similar dilemma, they proudly cited the importances of these choices and kept one school open. Had decision-makers been encouraged to look at larger metropolises like Harbour City, with 40 some odd alternative schools, their decision to close both schools serving these students would have very likely been different.

Jack realized very early on in this new role, just how hard reversing a political decision was.

Although Jack failed to change the previous Board’s vote, that school was something he often referenced in public and private discussions. Sometimes a bit off topic, sometimes while choking up,  holding back a tear, and from time to time, sometimes with a little anger and frustration in his voice.  He did so respectively, but although he was more or less encouraged to realize this type of facility would not return to their network of schools, Jack wasn’t someone who gave up on the issues he felt very strongly about.

Even though Jack was new to education and his political role, the longer he served and the more he learned about the inner workings of publicly funded education, the more he remembered those pre-election mentions of education on the edge. Not even two years in, Jack found himself becoming increasinging aware of the direction this dream of an alternative school needed to move in.

~

This entire story began with a newspaper article. A few of them actually.  Jack had lived in Waterfall City his entire life, had been educated under this same Board, but yet new nothing about  Ivor ‘The Driver’ Memorial High School (IMH). Suddenly, this school was frequently being discussed in local mainstream and indi media circles.

IMH as it turned out, had been among many in Waterfall City that once focused on vocational programming. Jack would even later learn that his uncle Melvin, who himself had a learning disability of type unknown to the family, had attended IMH. Other uncles had also graduated from vocational schools and gone on to do very well for themselves in fact.

In recent years however, leading up to its closing, IMH, through the leadership of its principle and dedicated staff, had evolved into a school where primarily students with various challenges attended.

Jack had this growing urge to drop into IMH to see for himself, what it was all about. That wasn’t an easy task for a quiet, introverted artist but one day early fall, he did just that. He sent the Principal a message, citing recent articles read and conversations he had had with staff he knew from the school, and within a week, through the Principles invitation, found himself at their parent council meeting.

The dynamics were polar opposite to parent council meetings Jack had attended at his girls schools. From advocating for an audio system or grade 8 trips, to pure survival, the contrast between a standard community school, and IMH, was daunting.

You see, IMH had been voted to close, along with its sister school across the city for students with more mild intellectual needs. IMH itself, was nothing to look at. Obviously in desperate need of repair but that wasn’t of concern to staff, students, or families. They loved this school and everything it represented.

This was the first parent council formed at Ivor Memorial in some 10 years, and they were here to fight alongside the students who had equally been inspired by the the announcement of their schools closure, to take to protesting on school and City Hall grounds.

For years these students and their families had fumbled through mainstream education, until finally finding their way to IMH – sometimes by chance, sometimes through hoops. Obviously the decision to close had been on executive minds for sometime, as they tried to limit it’s enrollment numbers.

That first October meeting, Jack found himself leaving as a community representative on Parent Council.  He had felt an instant connection with this group, but couldn’t put a finger on why it had immediately been so strong. When he had his first tour of the facility during school hours a couple of weeks later, the kindred relationships between staff, students, and the families all made it very clear why Jack had felt an instant draw to IMH before he had even stepped in through those front doors.

It was unique in so many ways, from it’s community mentorship program, breakfast clubs sponsored by the local professional hockey team, music playing in the hallways over the PA system between classes, signs everywhere helping the students navigate the building, dogs wondering the halls with their own staff ID, a greenhouse, smaller staff to student ratios, and some 200 partnerships throughout the City.

The tour guide, an extremely passionate IMH educator, often found herself choking up discussing the love for her school and her students. With each staff member we met, the adoration and advocacy of the need for this special space, dug deeper into Jack’s psyche. Who was Jack kidding. They had him at dogs, reminding him of an early 20’s employer where the owner’s pooches roamed the office freely, stopping by occasionally for a pet.

What really caught Jack’s attention most during his tour of IMH, was the flow of students who came into Principal Pat Seaton’s office, just to say hi. He was well regarded, and the mutual respect he had for his students was obvious. Where other kids, including Jack as a teen, avoided the office, this was a safe place throughout the day for many. One student even had explicit language on his hat (his hat), but it wasn’t something of focus. Neither was language in general either it seemed. Discouraged, but not a game changer among the broader picture.

As Jack was leaving, a couple of former students had popped in for a visit. They missed their school. They missed their principal. Jack stepped back and watched this interaction for a bit, before tapping Pat on the shoulder to say his goodbyes.

“We’ll be in touch, Pat.”

‘Thanks for coming, Jack. We’ll see you at next parent council.”

Jack hadn’t felt this included – this at home, for a long time. He was now a member of this school and he was honored.

He was never the same after that day. He later visited the school to sit in on classes from english and construction, to their composite class. He watched how staff patiently and with great compassion, took turns dealing with escalating student behavior like it was just a normal and very human part of their day. How didn’t office educator’s get this?

In the new year, now an official Trustee candidate, Jack attended the school for a discussion between the Board’s Director, standing Trustee, staff, students, families, and community members, moderated and hosted by a local neighborhood action group. So many in the community had joined the cause to save this school and this program, and this was the Boards attempt to explain how these students and future generations, would be okay under their new full inclusion model.

In Jack’s hand, as he arrived and took a seat in the front row of the IMH gymnasium, was a copy of a book called the Illusion of Full Inclusion (Kauffman/Hallahan). Ironically, it had just arrived that day so Jack brought it and put it on the chair next to him.

Although the moderator kept the meeting civil, neither speaker was able to breath comfort into the hearts and minds of anyone in the room, including IMH Student Council President Will (Megaphone) Martin. With megaphone in hand, Will and his fellow students, who had been quiet throughout, made sure it was known at one point that they would never give up on their fight to save the school that had changed their lives.

A petition of over 1000 signatures asking to preserve the school was presented at the meeting, which included advice from many educators and those who worked with these students in communities across Canada. It meant nothing.

The remaining months were spent reading Kauffman and Hallahan, knocking on doors in an effort to represent IMH in the political arena, and attending rallies.  Will Martin was inspiring people all across the city with his valiant and persistent efforts to make sure everyone and anyone knew about their cause, and why it was important to overturn a decision to close a school nobody but it’s staff and students, truly understood.

In late spring, the school held its annual talent show. It was the perfect example of why having an entire school for these students, rather than a handful of small alternative programs spread throughout the city, was an important option to have. These students would have never taken part in anything like this at their home schools. Jack had a tear in his eyes throughout most of the remarkable performances. These students were amazing. Inspiring. Resilient. They were attending dances, had friends (including girlfriends or boyfriends), for the first time. They were truly included. It was at this moment, where Jack fully understood just how personal inclusion was.

Jack attended a conference many years later where a speaker stated, in talking about these very options in education, that “When everyone is different, nobody is different.” This school exemplified this.

June seen the last ever graduating class of IMH walk across the stage. It was a packed auditorium, and an extremely emotional event. The students all looked sharp. Many were the first to graduate high school in their families, and some were the first to enter into post secondary studies.  These students stayed in school and didn’t just get by, they thrived and enjoyed every last minute of the latter part of their educational journeys. School had not been a great experience until IMH. That alone was worth its weight in ministry funding.

Now, it was all over. The halls silent. The Canadian flag standing guard over the echoes of 50 years of IMH grads, including Jacks’ late uncle Mel. The building, soon to be ashes alongside the program that had so majestically and holistically grown out of nothing – no thanks to any executive design.

The students watched in anguish, as the school was brought to rubble later that same year. It’s a hard enough thing for anyone to watch, nevermind students with special needs wondering why someone would close the first school they had truly found a home within.

What did this say about their value and place in society?

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