Breaking Down Barriers: The right high school welcomes disabilities

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When family and friends ask about high school plans for our eighth-grade son, who has cerebral palsy, I hear some concern in their voices.

They know he has done well in school so far, but they wonder -- understandably -- how he will handle algebra, foreign language, and other academic requirements of high school, not to mention the social milieu. They realize it's uncomfortable for teenagers to stand out because of their differences.

So the answer we give may come as a surprise. Our son -- who has many strengths as well as significant disabilities -- is considering several interesting options. As my husband and I explore these prospects with him, we're hopeful that we will find a high school where our son will thrive, not simply survive.

We are fortunate to live in the Pittsburgh school district, where parents have choices among high schools and where support for inclusive education has a long history. We are also considering one parochial and one charter school.

Many of our son's classmates will move on to Pittsburgh Brashear, a large, comprehensive high school, so this school has a special appeal for our son. Also on our radar screen is Pittsburgh Schenley, a magnet school for international studies. This school's new location in the former Reizenstein Middle School is absent the character of its former historic building, but is exceptionally accessible for a wheelchair user. In addition, Schenley would offer the opportunity to focus on the Spanish language, a subject our son has enjoyed at the middle school level, with the support of a speech-output device programmed for a Spanish-speaking user.

Our son's interest in music composition leads us to consider Pittsburgh's High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, also known as CAPA. Likewise, his proficiency with computers draws us to City High, a charter school focusing on technology and work readiness.

Yet another option is Bishop Canevin High School, a traditional Catholic school with a solid reputation for integrating students with disabilities and a robust recommendation from my niece, who's a junior there.

As our son moves toward ninth grade, he is in step with the ever-growing number of students with disabilities who attend classes alongside their peers in the "least restrictive environment" for most of the school day. Although the "LRE" provision of the original Individuals with Disabilities Education Act dates back to 1975, our son has been something of a pioneer because he uses such a wide range of adaptations and accommodations -- high-tech and low-tech -- to do grade-level work.

Our optimistic vision for our son's high school experience has been honed by his eight years at Pittsburgh Carmalt PreK-8, an outstanding school where his Individual Education Program (IEP) team is a model of cooperation and problem solving, and his teachers challenge him to reach his potential every day.

His educational supports are well defined, functional, and ready for transfer to high school. Likewise, he is preparing himself for new challenges. He accepts that he must work harder than most of his classmates to do similar work.

So, as we evaluate high schools, we ask the same questions that all parents do:

First and foremost, what does this school offer my child? High school is a place to freely explore abilities and interests, a time of social development -- how does the school support this?

As parents of a student with a disability, we look for additional features. We want our son to be taken seriously as a student. Signs in hallways may affirm that "all students" are members of the school community and that "all students" can learn. We want a school that truly lives by these mottos.

We seek a school where regular education teachers and the heads of extracurricular activities actually engage with students with disabilities and are involved in their progress, though it may come at a different rate or in a different form. We want a school that understands that teachers who do not interact with the students in their classrooms who have disabilities send the message that is it OK to ignore people who are different.

We want a school with leaders who insist upon a climate of kindness and respect. The high school years can be difficult for a teenager with a disability. Friendships can't be forced, but a congenial school climate goes a long way toward creating a sense of belonging.

Some high schools make a conscious effort to ensure that students with disabilities are connected to the social life of the school. A friend of ours praises Fox Chapel High School's "Peer Helper" program, which links students in the Life Skills program to those in the regular academic program.

Life Skills teacher Susan Cataldi founded the program 16 years ago to address the social isolation of her students. "They should be hanging out with friends, not with their parents," she explains. The peer helpers not only meet their partners during the school day, they jointly plan activities for weekends, like going to the mall, bowling or a movie.

This and other organized efforts to address the social needs of high school students with disabilities (a national program, Best Buddies, is another one) deserve praise, but are just one way to understand the issue.

The kind of high school we are seeking for our son will be attuned to the emotional lives of all its students. Teens with disabilities often do feel alone and left out. They may feel both highly visible and yet invisible. We want a school that acknowledges these and other realities in students' lives.

So, yes, we do have high expectations as we take a look at high schools. But we also expect much from ourselves and from our son.

We are so proud of him as he moves at his own pace and makes a place for himself in the world. And we are thrilled to have a wealth of options as he embarks on the next chapter of his life.

Tina Calabro writes on disability issues. Her e-mail address is .


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