The Columbia Elementary School Parent Association (CPA), a volunteer organization similar to a PTA, recently launched an inclusion initiative to educate parents on issues of diversity. This new emphasis came as Columbia added a Life Skills special education classroom to the school last fall.
Before the Life Skills classroom opened, changes were made at the school including the installation of locks and fences were around the perimeter of the school, something that could be concerning to families if they didn’t know why they were put into place. To help ease the transition, the CPA decided to use their regular meetings as an opportunity to learn by hearing from different groups about their experiences at Columbia.
“We wanted to explore, what can we do as parents to educate?” said Liz Isaly, a Columbia parent and special education teacher at Bellingham High School. “How can we create a more inclusive community and integrate kids in Life Skills? How can we open doors for understanding differences?”
The first gathering focused on the topic of people with different abilities and included a presentation with panelists who spoke about their family members with disabilities. One parent spoke about her child with Down syndrome and provided specific examples of how others can help include her child, and shared why inclusion is important to her and her family.
Since that initial meeting in December, the group has hosted a total of 14 speakers on topics including LGBTQ+ issues, religion and race.
The session on religion included individuals from the Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, Evangelical Christian and Muslim faiths and they spoke about their family’s experience in schools, including some challenges. The session helped the CPA realize they had been scheduling events on Friday evenings when Jewish families observe Shabbat, a time of rest and celebration.
“It isn’t always easy,” said Isaly. “We often say we are ‘stumbling forward,’ knowing we will make mistakes.”
For principal Aaron Darragh, it prompted him to ask, “How do we increase inclusivity and increase feelings of connectedness? The sessions helped me focus on specific issues and how I can support all families feeling welcome.”
Columbia also took steps to be more inclusive of students who are non-gender-conforming by making some of the bathrooms gender-neutral, meaning they are single-stall and can be used by anyone. All newly constructed Bellingham Public Schools buildings have gender-neutral bathrooms, but schools in older buildings have to problem-solve this issue.
The final session of this year’s inclusion initiative addressed the topic of race and how to talk to your children about it. “The more you do it, the less awkward it gets,” Isaly said.
The success of the educational sessions has led the CPA to begin planning topics for next year including diverse family structures, students from other countries and families experiencing poverty. The committee also identified books that can be purchased around those topics and added them to the library. The books were then introduced by Columbia’s librarian into classes and shared with families along discussion questions.
The acceptance and integration of the Life Skills classroom into the Columbia family has gone smoothly.
“The opportunity of having kids in our Life Skills classroom has brought so much joy to Columbia,” said Principal Darragh. “We love our kids and families and appreciate the diverse learning partnerships among all our students.”
Earlier this year, fifth grade students became interested in engaging with the students in Life Skills, who are in kindergarten. In response, the school set up a regular time for fifth graders to help out in the Life Skills classroom, allowing for ongoing interaction, shared learning and deepening of understanding. Students in Life Skills are integrated into activities within kindergarten classrooms and are part of those communities as well. This is individually determined based on their needs.
“Sharing life experiences and forming friendships with people with all abilities has allowed everybody at our school feel that there is a place for them,” said Jessica Goette, Life Skills teacher at Columbia. “Having meaningful conversations with students about similarities and differences has helped foster a culture of awareness and acceptance.”
“It’s amazing how kids are taking care of each other. That idea that we’re all made differently, and that’s OK. It’s really normalizing difference, and it has been a huge gift,” said Isaly. Isaly also wanted to recognize the inclusion initiate was a collaborative effort that included support from other Columbia parents including Meredith Attar, Kirstin Copeland, Suzanne Gray, Abby Koehler and L.K. Langley.
Photos of the Life Skills classroom at Columbia Elementary School : 1) Teacher Jessica Goette helps student Sivan Wells-Langley sign a birthday card for another student. 2) The swing can be used as a calming place for children by helping them process sensory information 3) Speech and language pathologist Katie Renkert reads with student Marco Diaz. 4) Whenever possible, students in the Life Skills program participate in the general education Physical Education (PE) classes.