Bell was determined to find a better school for Sebastian, who has a learning disability and was diagnosed with autism several months ago. Based on the suggestion of a good friend, she decided to contact Immanuel Christian School (ICS), in Oshawa.
Since meeting with the school’s principal, Jasper Hoogendam, and enrolling both of her children as students at ICS last September, Bell has watched Sebastian’s educational journey take a radical turn for the better.
“We have seen more growth in our son from September to now than in any of the previous school years,” says Bell. “He’s excited to go to school every day.”
She remembers when Sebastian’s report cards used to be filled with phrases like “needs to improve” or, at best, “satisfactory”. The first report card she received from ICS this year read very differently: Sebastian’s teachers had many positive things to say. He was well adjusted and had friends who loved him. His marks were good. He’d even earned an A in math!
Learning that her son was thriving socially and academically in a caring environment, was better news than Bell could have hoped for. The good report card was only one sign among others that Sebastian “finally belonged”.
Part of ICS’s vision around special education is to ensure that children working with Personal Support Workers (PSW’s), or who receive other forms of educational therapy, feel like valued, contributing members of the community. That was especially apparent to Bell during school’s Christmas musical this year, when Sebastian had the chance to help out with important production aspects of the show.
“He was so excited” says Bell. “He had never done any music or band or anything. He does not sing, he’s not part of the choir—so they said, ‘okay lets find something else for him to do.’ So he started learning how to run the sound board and the lights. He even participated in the band that evening.”
The school’s bent towards inclusion and accommodation also extends to daily life in the classroom, where Sebastian’s self assurance continues to grow.
“His confidence has just exploded because his teachers let him do things,” says Bell. “He’s always been fidgety and could never sit still—constantly moving. In the classroom, his teachers allow for that. They allow him to have “fidget toys”. Right now he’s very much in to looms and has made elastic bracelets for his teachers. Its amazing, the care that they put into him.”
Today, the PSW’s, Educational Assistants and Special Education teachers working at ICS bring a variety of strengths and backgrounds to their roles; some have past experience helping children with autism in a school setting, and in an early childhood classroom. Others are in the midst of finishing Special Education courses. Because of the relationship that ICS has fostered with the local college, students from Durham College’s Social Service Worker program have been interning as PSW’s at the school for the past three years. Placements at ICS are highly sought after, says Hoogendam.
Hoogendam notes that there are many Christian schools near community colleges, and he encourages staff to explore the possibility of arranging a PSW internship. In order to “get that initial contact”, he recommends having someone in the school to act as an advocate. For all those involved, the process will likely require ongoing work and patience, but the rewards are high too. Even if an intern is simply filling out an observation checklist for a child, that kind of work helps teachers know how to better meet the needs of students, he notes.
The school also offers educational therapy by contracting with a private practitioner. “We have half a dozen students enrolled in the therapy programs,” says Hoogendam. “The therapist has been very helpful in advising faculty on the progress the students are making with the prescribed therapies as well as advising faculty on how to address behavior concerns.”
Hoogendam is grateful for the exceptional personnel working at ICS, and says he’s noticed a tangible “sense of abundance” around working with children like Sebastian. Still, he recognizes how challenging it can be to create a “culture of acceptance” in the classroom, especially when students are hesitant to befriend those peers whom they perceive as different.
To help build understanding among the student body, he recently invited members of Autism Ontario to lead an assembly at the school. “Their presentation was meant to give students a sense of what it’s like to be in a classroom when you’ve got some atypical behaviors and to give a sense of what causes those behaviors,” says Hoogendam. Students were also urged to be intentional in getting to know their classmates with autism—to understand their interests, their passions and their gifts.
But, in order to develop a sense of empathy in the school, Hoogendam believes that something more is needed: namely, the Christian understanding that every child is precious in his or her uniqueness—loved deeply and valued by God—no matter how “different” they seem from the typical elementary aged learner.
On many occasions, Sebastian has been able to experienced this for himself at ICS— through confidence building interactions with his teachers, extracurricular activities, and learning opportunities that allow his God given creativity to shine through. However, his presence at the school is hardly one sided: Sebastian has been blessed by ICS staff and students, but he’s also been a blessing to others—offering friendship and demonstrating to his peers that “success” can look different for each child.
“He is funny and easy to work with. He listens to your ideas,” says Noel, a grade 4 student in Sebastian’s class.
“I find him helpful. He is creative and brings something new,” adds Leah, another student in the class.
As ICS teachers integrate students with unique learning needs into their classrooms, they’re not only shaping a climate of acceptance and tolerance at the school, they’re also making space for diversity, bearing in mind that a school—like Christ’s body of believers—is at its healthiest and most beautiful when people with different abilities, personalities and gifts live and learn together in community.