When a child is placed into a full-time special education school, it is usually assumed that the child has failed in a regular school, and most likely will have to receive special help for the rest of his or her educational experience. Not so at Near North where the principal, teachers and staff have developed an exciting program to re-integrate their students classified by their local school as failures. These children are sent to Near North often as a last resort before being sent to a residential treatment facility. Principal Lucy Very has launched a program to save these children from such a fate, a very unique special education program, the “Inclusion Club.”
Anger can be a challenging emotion, even for adults, but the majority of us have learned to deal with it constructively when it comes and move on. But for children, uncontrolled anger and the behavioral issues that accompany it can have a devastating effect on their lives, often for the rest of their lives.
“The majority of our students come from unsettled or abusive home environments and may be living in foster homes or group homes. They haven’t received a fair shake at life, and they have good reason to be angry,” said Peter Gayford, who is the librarian for Near North Elementary School, a therapeutic or “special education” school for students with severe emotional problems who have been referred to Near North from other schools within – and in some cases outside – the District.
“The next step for many of our children is a residential facility. That’s why everything we do is geared toward helping our students deal with their emotions to improve their behavior, so they can eventually return to a general education school,” said Gayford, a 16-year Near North veteran who admits to “falling in love” with the school as soon as he started there. “This is without a doubt the hardest environment in CPS to work in. It takes a lot of courage, energy, and mental strength to work here, but come the end of each day you know your efforts and devotions positively impacted the students’ lives in some way. The staff members of Near North Elementary are the true heroes of the public school system.
The school provides students with differentiated instruction, meaning that, while teachers teach the full CPS curriculum just like any other school, the way they teach may be modified to accommodate the students’ particular challenges. Class size is also smaller (10-13 students per class) so teachers can provide individual attention to students as necessary.
According to Sarah Dean, who has been a teacher at Near North for the last two years, her work at the school, while it can be challenging, has made her a better teacher. “I teach the same curriculum as every other school in the District, but I have to be creative in presenting the material to the students, keeping their behavioral and emotional needs in mind so they can learn,” said Dean.
“For example, I ask the students to collaborate with each other on assignments. I like to pair higher performing students with those who may be struggling. The kids like the feeling they get from being able to help someone else. Another example is that I often break down complex assignments into smaller steps so it is more manageable for the kids. We also use a lot of checklists. As students complete each step of an assignment, they get to check it off their checklist, which they feel really good about and motivates them to continue,” Dean said.
When her students are successful, Dean makes sure to remind them that they are learning the same things that students in general education schools are learning and that they should be just as proud about their accomplishments. “I want it to be clear to the students that the education they receive here will not limit them in any way,” she said.
Dean appreciates the supportive environment at the school. “It’s incredibly collaborative. With the work being so hard, we all need to lean on each other. It’s a small group [of teachers] and we know every student, so we talk to each other a lot about what’s working, what’s not, and how to improve,” she said.
Near North is one of three such therapeutic schools in the CPS system. The others are Montefiore and Buckingham. What makes Near North unique is its “Inclusion Club,” which Principal Lucy Very launched this school year to provide students with an incentive to work hard and follow the rules. Librarian Gayford runs the club. “Before, students usually stayed here until they graduated 8th grade. The environment was comfortable, and there was little motivation to return to a general education school. With the Inclusion Club, our kids now have an incentive to improve themselves behaviorally, since they have something to work toward and achieve.”
The rules are embedded in the school’s four-level behavior system. Level 4 is the highest level. Students who achieve this level come to school every day, complete their work in class, follow all school procedures, and generally stay out of trouble, both in school and on the bus. To be a part of the Inclusion Club, students must remain at a Level 4 for five weeks; then, after they are in the club, they must maintain that level for six more weeks to be considered for integration into a general education school, referred to as the Inclusion Program.
“We try to return students to the schools they attended before being referred here, but often times students have negative or hurtful associations with their prior schools. If that’s the case, then the students are sent to one of two schools we are associated with – Peabody or Brown,” said Principal Very. Students in the program spend five days a week for two hours a day at the general education schools, then they reconvene as a group every Friday to talk about the week and any issues they may have encountered along the way as well as to celebrate their successes.
Currently, 10 of the 14 students in the Inclusion Club are attending the general education receiver schools, which, given their difficult backgrounds, is an amazing accomplishment. One such example is a 6th grader named Chris. Chris is 13 and has been a Near North student for more than two years. He attends Peabody a few days a week. Chris revealed that in the past his temper would get the better of him to the point where he needed to be restrained.
However, with the tools and techniques he has learned from Near North, Chris admits he’s been much calmer. “I’ve worked really hard. Before, every little thing would bother me. But now, I either walk away [from confrontations] or count to 10. I also draw or write down what I’m feeling. I keep improving every day, and I’m turning around things both at home and school,” said Chris.
“When he first came here, it was really tough for Chris,” said Dean, who is Chris’s homeroom teacher. “There’s a place in the room where kids can go if they feel like they are getting too upset. He was there a lot. Or he’d sit quietly at his desk, and let his emotions bottle up. Now, he’s learning to express his feelings in ways that are appropriate and not hurtful to others,” said Dean.
Chris credits his improvement to his “fantastic teachers and principal,” and reports that he’s made a lot of new friends at Peabody. Last month, he even went to a dance at the school. Although he didn’t actually dance at the dance, Chris hung out with his friends and had a good time.
“Chris and other students like him are testament to the fact that no child should be placed in a program where there is no hope for that child to ever gain full acceptance back into a regular school. All children, no matter how handicapped emotionally or cognitively, should be given the best opportunity to restore his or her chance for a full success in life. Through this exciting and innovative program, the ‘Inclusion Club,’ students once considered failures by their local schools are returning to regular education as success stories,” said Very.
Click here for more information about Near North Elementary.