Lessons in acceptance at Sunny View
School’s ‘win-win’ reverse integration program lets profoundly disabled and mainstream children learn together in a place that benefits ‘students, teachers and ultimately society’
Sierra Gies steps up to bat during a T-ball game in gym class at Sunny View Public School. She pops one to the right side of the gymnasium, and gets ready to run the bases – by rolling to first in a wheelchair.
It’s her way of levelling out the playing field in a setting where she could easily have the upper hand, since Gies, 7, is not disabled.
She is one of six “regular kids” in school with children who have severe disabilities and fragile health through a program called “reverse integration.”
Instead of having disabled children join mainstream classrooms, this program brings mainstream students into the classrooms of children with profound physical and developmental challenges – those for whom integration is not normally an option – and lets them learn together, as well as from each other.
“It’s hard for our kids to be integrated because they all have severe health issues. In order for them to have regular peers around them, and to make regular friends, the only way to do it is to bring them into the school,” said principal Debbie Michnick.
“That’s what we have done here.”
But the benefits aren’t just one-sided. “For the regular kids who come, they learn tolerance, empathy, acceptance, and how to be leaders,” she said.
This year the program – unique to public schools in the GTA – was open to students who had either disabled siblings, or were children of staff.
Next year, the school will be open to all students in the Toronto District School Board interested and suited to learning in the unique environment. The program will only be offered in kindergarten and Grade 1.
Michnick was introduced to the program last year after a visit from their “sister school,” the Mackay Centre School in Montreal.
They had been running the reverse integration program for the last 30 years and urged Sunny View to give it a try.
Now, nearly a year later, teachers at Sunny View – on Blythwood Rd., near Yonge St. and Lawrence Ave. – have seen the changes.
“From doing assessments of the students at the beginning of the year compared to now, I have seen gains in all of them,” said Sarah Kapitza, a Grade 2 teacher.
During the science period in Kapitza’s class, six students, three of them in wheelchairs, form a semicircle and watch her open a box filled with supplies for their simple machines unit.
“What’s in there?” asks Abdulahi Hassan, 11, who has cerebral palsy and is the most talkative in the group.
“Some wood, a saw, and glue,” answers Gies, the only reverse integration student in the class, as she holds a juice carton to Hassan’s mouth, so he can take a sip.
Osmond Shen, 10, who has a more severe form of cerebral palsy, also tries to weigh in. Kapitza gently eggs him on, and Shen repeats his question.
“What’s the glue for?” he asks. Last year, Shen was almost completely non-verbal. Now, he manages to take part in almost every conversation.
“They take in the information and can understand, but they can’t necessarily express,” said Taz Kassam, who teaches a combination of kindergarten and Grade 1, and has three reverse integration kids in her class of seven.
“But by having the regular kids in the class, it gives them the opportunity to speak and develop their speaking skills and comprehension skills. They are learning from each other.”
At Montreal’s Mackay Centre School, which offers the program from kindergarten to Grade 6, Principal Jacques Monfette says: “It’s been incredibly successful for us.
“Students benefit, teachers benefit and ultimately society benefits. Really, it’s a win-win situation.”
The program is now in its second generation at Mackay, with former students now teaching at the school and alumni enrolling their kids into the program.
A similar integrated kindergarten program has also been in place at Toronto’s Bloorview Kid Rehab since the late ’90s.
Monfette laments that there have never been any studies to assess the academic or social impact that reverse integration has made on the school. “We are the perfect setting for a PhD thesis.”
But the teachers at Sunny View claim that no such study is necessary. The impact the program has had on all students in just one year is obvious. The presence of the reverse integration kids has helped to “raise the bar” in the standard of teaching, although there are obvious challenges in teaching such a diverse group, Kassam admits.
“The challenge is to use differentiated instruction in creative ways so you have to cover the curriculum for both sets of kids,” she said. “But because we have high expectations from some of the regular students, it makes you have higher expectations from the entire group.”
Nikki Choo has seen such gains in her 5-year-old son Samuel Cho, who came to Sunny View for kindergarten last year. Other than the nurturing learning environment, she says her son has thrived in the small classes.
“When my son came here, he could barely recite the alphabet. But because of the smaller groups, they were really able to focus on where his needs were,” said Choo.
She was never concerned that going to school, with students who may be developmentally delayed, would set Samuel back academically.
“Here you learn how to be a really good person. If we can we teach that to our kids, the academics will follow,” said Choo.
“I think just the understanding that we have to be good to each other, we have to take care of people, we have to accept people regardless of what their makeup is, I think that kind of education will go much, much further than anything.” She has noticed a difference in the way Samuel treats his older sister, who has Down syndrome. “He is so much gentler. You can sense that he’s learned how to care.”
Three of the six students in the reverse integration program are planning to stay for another year. A recruiting drive is currently underway to bring that number up to 12 for next year.
Despite its success this year, the response so far from parents has been less than anticipated, considering that any child who joins the reverse integration program has not only small classes, but access to full daycare, a swimming program, and a hot lunch program.
But the program is not suited for everyone, Michnick said.
“There is a screening process to ensure that the students who come are suited to the program,” said Michnick.
“We want to have children who want to be here themselves, not because their parents want them to be here. We need children who are of average development, who are normal in every way.”
But it is clear there is nothing “normal” about these children or what the program has to offer; as one child hugs another, or pushes a wheelchair, or helps a peer to eat, there is a sense that a deeper kind of education is taking place here.
“After a year of being together, the nice thing about the students is that they don’t notice the difference between each other at all,” said Kapitza.
“They just see each other as kids.”