Ray Duckler: Ally’s allies help her wings to grow

Last modified: 2/9/2014 11:39:02 PM
Arianna wrote about caterpillars changing into butterflies last week at Beaver Meadow School.

In effect, she could have been writing about her friend, Ally Girouard.

Ally’s wings grow longer and stronger each day, at a school that won’t have it any other way.

“She’s going to have a play date with me soon,” said Arianna, a second-grader.

Her play date will be with a 7-year-old girl with something called Angleman syndrome, a chromosomal disorder that affects mobility, speech and learning.

Ally started walking at age 5 and still needs assistance doing it. She’s long on hugs and short on words, using an electronic device with icons to push-button her way into others’ lives.

Once upon a time, children like Ally went to school on separate buses, with others who had learning and emotional and physical challenges.

I remember it well.

They sat in a classroom down a hallway that seemed miles from everyone else, with the door forever shut, and they were covered by a cloak of mystery that made them appear scary.

We didn’t know how to treat them, or how to speak to them, and we certainly didn’t include them in dodgeball or climbs on the monkey bars.

So we ignored them. Or, sometimes, we made fun of them.

That’s changed. Not everywhere, educators point out, but it’s the way things are at Beaver Meadow.

“Our class is a community,” Michelle Mulligan, Ally and Arianna’s teacher, said during a break in the action last week. “Inclusion is a word grown-ups use. In my class we are all just friends.”

‘A culture of inclusion’

In this column, Ally’s friends will be called by first name only. Their parents wanted it that way.

But Ally’s mother, Amy Girouard, has no problem shouting her daughter’s full name from the rooftops. She beams when discussing Ally’s progress.

She’s a licensed clinical social worker whose cheery disposition belies past sadness. Ally was diagnosed with Angelman late in 2007, and Girouard’s husband succumbed to lung cancer two months later.

Fast forward, and Girouard has remarried and is optimistic about Ally’s future. So, in appreciation, she emailed the Monitor to plug her daughter’s school.

“In looking at things across the country, it’s not typical of how schools treat people with disabilities,” Girouard said. “Inclusion is so incredibly important that I wanted to celebrate Beaver Meadow and how they treat anyone with disabilities or special needs.”

She continued: “They foster a culture of inclusion, and they realize and teach the children that everyone is different, and to accept all people with their differences.”

The vision is clear: If children without disabilities know nothing else, if they are grouped with challenged children from the beginning, they’ll learn and grow and contribute more as adults, absorbing life’s lessons and expanding their understanding of the world.

It’s a portion of life that those from other generations missed.

Few have grasped the subject and its meaning like Concord’s Dan Habib, former Monitor photo editor.

Habib, whose son, Samuel, has cerebral palsy, is the filmmaker in residence at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire.

Since Samuel’s birth 14 years ago, Habib has charged out front of this educational – and societal – breakthrough. His films have energized and awoken school systems across the country, and one of his films, Including Samuel, documenting his son’s experience at Beaver Meadow, has helped build this foundation.

“What people forget is how powerful that can be for the kids without disabilities in terms of their own social and emotional growth,” Habib said. “They learn the world is a diverse place where people walk differently and talk differently, see differently and act differently. We didn’t learn that as kids, and that teaches skills like patience and creativity and compassion and flexibility, and those are real-life skills you need in the workplace and in relationships and with anything.”

Beaver Meadow paraprofessionals, special education case mangers, and occupational and physical therapists all say the same thing: That advanced children can learn at their own pace while others in the class can learn at theirs.

Cheryl Lampron is a paraprofessional who’s worked at Beaver Meadow for eight years. She spent five years helping Samuel, who’s now in eighth grade at Rundlett Middle School.

Now she guides Ally during afternoons in Mulligan’s class. She helps Ally trace letters, and encourages her to relay thoughts through the electronic speaking device, with its keys separated by a grid that looks like a waffle iron, and its robotic voice that reveals Ally likes “to play dolls and bubbles.”

“This gives her a huge awareness of her surroundings and relationships with others,” Lampron said. “And in later years, she’ll still be involved socially with her peers.”

Impact on others?

But what about her peers and their progress? Inevitably, officials concede, parents through the years have questioned the effect inclusion may have on their own kids, fearing children with disabilities will hold others back because of their need for extra attention.

As Beaver Meadow principal John Forrest said, “Yes, there are people who say it takes away from some kids. I don’t believe in that, and it’s one of the reasons I probably ended up in a district like this.”

Habib comes ready, armed with national 20- and 30-year studies that say the impact on typical peers is positive. Comparable or greater gains are achieved in math and reading, the studies show, and instructional time for this majority has not decreased.

As for other areas, like patience, understanding, compassion, awareness, relationship skills and so on, the experience for students without disabilities is off the charts.

It’s an experience I wish I’d had, and it creates, Habib said, a bullying antidote.

“I would bet,” Habib said, “that Ally’s peers are benefiting as much as Ally is. Perhaps even more.”

In Mulligan’s class, Ally never leaves for special attention. Her physical therapy works well in the gym, when her classmates are there, too, running and jumping and laughing.

“When you pull kids out, what happens?” Habib said. “You’re telling the kids in the class that that kid does not belong in the class all day long. It breaks up the sense of community.”

Then Habib throws a nugget of reality into the mix, citing a U.S. Department of Education study that says “56 percent of kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities spend their entire day segregated in special education classrooms.”

That’s what I recall.

That’s not what I saw one day last week.

Ally wore a flowered dress, and her blond hair, pulled back, and light skin made her blue eyes seem deeper.

She blended with classmates: Alex, Ray, Katelyn, Courtney, Audrey, Trystan, Jillyian, Francis, Ian and Adam. No one knows for sure how much Ally absorbs, but the mindset, Girouard says, is one of “presumed competence.”

That creates a culture of learning.

So there was Arianna, working on her story, the one about caterpillars and butterflies, and interacting with a friend whose wings are growing each day.

“She’s like a mother hen to Ally,” Mulligan said. “She wants to go to her house to play with dolls. Friends don’t see Ally any differently.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)


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