NORTH KINGSTOWN – For her senior project, Vanessa Thompson, a North Kingstown High School student, researched the importance of inclusive education within the school district, while also raising awareness of the specialized programs already being implemented. 

During last Tuesday’s school committee meeting, Thompson detailed her findings. 

“As I began my project I decided to do some background research to better understand why inclusive education is so important in the curriculum,” Thompson said. “I learned that all students involved [in inclusive education] have great academic gains because of the programs, and this also correlates with a higher motivation among students.” 

Inclusive education is when all students–those in both general and special education–are placed in the same, age-appropriate classes together, learning about each other’s difference and developing a greater understanding of one another. The driving principle of inclusive education is to make all students feel welcomed, appropriately challenged and supported in their efforts.

“A greater understanding and empathy is achieved among general education students as they work with the special education students [...] while also helping [special education students] through the struggles they may have in schools,” Thompson said. “Friendships are also created as a result of inclusive education, which helps with role models and opportunities for students to grow academically, socially and personally.”

Thompson’s presentation went over the need for inclusive education, the current status of specialized programs within the district and ideas for the future. 

“One of the more important aspects to take away from inclusive education is that it fosters a culture of respect and belonging among students, as general education students learn about the differences that special education students have and accept them for them,” she said.

Currently, both Davisville Middle School (DMS) and the high school have specialized physical education programs that combine a mix of general and special education students.   

DMS’s program, called Peer Pals, was inspired by the high school’s program, Peer Partner. Both schools also have unified sports programs. 

Peer Partner, Thompson said, had branched out to other specialized classes, like basic foods and democracy, with a mix of general and special education students. 

While she had personally seen the beneficial aspects of Peer Partner at the high school, Thompson went to DMS to talk to middle schoolers about Peer Pals. 

“As I have witnessed many positive aspects about the specialized programs at the high school, I wanted to learn more about what was going on at DMS,” she said. “I decided to go and visit the Peer Pals classes among all grades and interview students among all grades as well.”

Every student Thompson interviewed said they loved the inclusive class, with general education students learning about the different challenges special education students face and special education students branching out to other activities that they might not have, had it not been for Peer Pals.  

“I also asked every student if they noticed inclusion continuing outside of the classroom and all of them told me that they do,” she added. “I asked them if they invited students to sit with them at lunch, and they told me that they do and they told me that strong friendships have been created because of Peer Pals.” 

“Most students said their favorite part of the class is the feeling of acceptance,” she continued.  

Students also told Thompson that they noticed marked improvements from sixth to eighth grade. 

Eighth grade students also noticed improvements made between sixth to eighth grade, whether that be with special education students and the goals that they have to achieve for that school year, or general education students learning how to help others better,” she said. “All students plan on joining Peer Partner in the high school.” 

She also said that she found that a similar class at Wickford Middle School (WMS) would be more difficult to implement. 

“A class that mirrors Peer Pals, I’ve learned, at WMS would be more difficult because there isn’t as high of a special education population there, because DMS has more facilities for special education students,” she said, before adding, “I do think that a specialized program or class with a mix of students would be beneficial for Wickford students.”

Some ideas for the future, as outlined by Thompson, include creating more inclusive options at DMS, similar to the additional programs at the high school.

She also recommended that North Kingstown join the Ponaganset High School in their “Choose to Include” program, which involves the faculty and staff taking a pledge of inclusion at the beginning of each year. 

“I pledge to look for the lonely, the isolated, the left-out, the challenged and the bullied,” Ponaganset’s pledge states. “I pledge to overcome the fear of difference and replace it with the power of inclusion.”

Thompson also said that, while it may prove more complicated, more specialized programs should be implemented at WMS, as well. 

“Specialized program at WMS would be helpful for students,” she said. “It can be similar to basic foods, art, democracy classes at high school.” 

She wrapped up her presentation by offering her final thoughts on the future of inclusive education in North Kingstown schools. 

“There’s always something we can be doing for all students, whether it be general education or special education,” she said. 

Thompson recommended that the school committee keep her findings in mind during future planning, while allowing students to get involved in specialized programs more often. 

“I do think that these ideas go to prove how beneficial they are,” she said. “We should always allow students to get involved in specialized programs, and to always continue acceptance throughout their lives outside of North Kingstown and into adulthood.”

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