By MADOLINE MARKHAM
Last fall, Christ’s Kids Preschool and Nursery (CKPN) opened its doors to eight special needs children. The teachers will tell you it was an adjustment but not one they would think twice about doing over again.
“I loved watching the parents get excited,” resource teacher Katie Steverson said. “I would tell them what their child had done that day, and they would tear up.”
A boy that used a walker took 10 steps by the end of the year. By watching their peers, little boys learned to play with cars instead of cupping them in their hands. One little girl always held her special friend’s hand. A class would applaud when a special needs child reached a small milestone like not throwing a cup at lunch.
“It would warm your heart to watch,” Director Amy Tolloch said. “The children jumped right in and wanted to nurture, help and include those children. We never had any exclusion; it was a beautiful thing.”
Five out of nine classrooms had different therapists coming in up to four or five days a week. Some of the children had Down syndrome, others autism, developmental delays, speech issues or gross and fine motor delays.
“For a small preschool of 80 to 85 kids, eight was a large number of special needs children,” Tolloch said. “It was a learning process and a blessing for us.” The preschool is housed at Christ Church United Methodist behind Spain Park High School.
This fall, the school anticipates having around the same number or as many as they can accommodate.
“Parents just want their children to be with typical children and to be treated like a typical child, not just from school age,” Tolloch said. “We saw that need and that it wasn’t being met around us.”
The ECLIPSE program, which provided preschool for special needs children in Shelby County Schools, had closed its doors, leaving little to no options for special needs preschoolers in North Shelby County. Hand in Hand, The Bell Center and Mitchell’s Place, all located in other areas of Birmingham, offer preschool programs but often have long waiting lists or high costs.
CKPN had never been approached by a parent of a special needs child, but when Nancy Kurre of The Bright House Foundation approached her with the idea, Tolloch said she decided to be proactive instead of reactive.
“It was important to me that my staff was on board with it,” Tolloch said. “We wanted to take everyone we could with our means and abilities.”
That summer, the preschool was inundated with phone calls after word of mouth quickly spread. Some children were graduating from the Bell Center and needed a new school. Others had never been in a preschool program before.
One day, Tolloch said God sent them Allison Strain, who had an education degree and experience teaching at the Bell Center. Strain teamed up with Steverson, a preschool teacher who had a degree and experience in special education, as resource teachers for their new students.
Together with Tolloch, Strain and Steverson set out to meet with parents and therapists to bridge the gap between them and the classroom.
Hand In Hand, a special needs preschool, trained the CKPN staff before school year started. The staff made special schedule boards with words and pictures.
Special needs children thrive on structure, but, then again, so do all preschoolers. “You learn that things that help special needs children help the other children as well,” Tolloch said.
All the kids learned at age and grade, not necessarily ability, level and participated in the Christmas and graduation programs.
Therapists from Shelby County, HAND (Help for Autism and Neuro-Developmental Disorders) and other private services became a fluid part of each classroom, as each child learned social skills, letters and numbers from their teachers and one another. The therapists taught all the children how to play with the special needs students, never minding if all the children participated in their activities.
“It has taught all the kids to include others in centers, on the playground, etc.” Steverson said. “The beauty of inclusive classrooms is how kids learn from their peers.”
At the end of last school year, three special need children graduated from 4K. “It was rewarding for us and for the parents to see that happen,” Tolloch said.
Other preschool programs have called CKPN and are asking about how they can implement similar programs for special needs children. Christ’s Kids has new goals to better equip their classrooms with tools for the special needs children.
But mostly, the teachers are looking forward to welcoming the children and seeing which other teacher gets to help “their child” from last year.
Tolloch is thinking about the students.
“I can only hope that what we take away from it is that the children don’t see any differences and when they do they are accepting of it.”