It's 2018: Meet an American Public Classroom
At the crest of a short, steep hill sits the Heard Street Discovery Academy in Worcester, MA. Surrounded by homes, it's a typical neighborhood school, where students walk, bike, or ride the bus to class. With almost 300 students in kindergarten and grades one through six, Heard Street is just the right size where everyone knows everyone’s name. Even when walking through the main doors, visitors immediately feel that this is a school where children are nurtured and mentored. It's just that kind of place.
A Natural Born Teacher
Fifth grade teacher Beth Grueter is the first to admit she doesn’t have a quiet classroom, but that doesn’t bother her. “I grew up in a big family, and my mother had an in-home day care. There were always children around in our house, so I am used to the hustle and bustle, and managing on many levels.” With 23 students under her charge, each day is different, challenging and rewarding. Beth loves her job because she loves her students. In many ways, she is a natural born teacher who has no hesitation in bending down to look a student in the eye, or to liberally give out hugs when needed. But Beth almost didn’t become a teacher.
Beth grew up thinking she would eventually become a nurse. Instead she became a weekend warrior working in the Air National Guard as an EMT. In time, her plans became derailed. At 30, she had her first son and wondered how she could make a change in her life. And then Beth passed a billboard about Bay Path’s One Day Program on Saturdays and she knew there was another option.
As a single mom, the program was perfect for me. I decided to become a teacher, and I knew immediately I had made the right decision.
In her first official year in her own classroom, Beth was met with the unexpected. “In truth, I had an inclusive classroom with several students on IEPs (Individualized Education Plan). Although I had aides, I had to adapt my teaching style. I decided to return to Bay Path to earn my master’s in special education because I believed my students would benefit from what I would learn, and classrooms were becoming more and more inclusive.”
Today, her class has several students across the spectrum with a variety of needs. Although they receive focused and structured learning tailored to each of their plans, they are a vital part of the classroom activities. As much as possible, children, and not just in Beth’s class, are being educated in a totally integrated environment. And the benefits are enormous.
“I had a young boy from another country who had a very apparent cognitive delay, among other things. Now, children are very perceptive. One of the smartest boys in the class began mocking this young boy. When the opportunity arose and the new boy was not present, I spoke truthfully and honestly with the class. From that moment on, there was an immediate change, and the other students became much more supportive. And the boy, who was originally so unaccepting of the new classmate, did a complete turn around and began helping the new boy—he became his biggest champion. By the end of the year, I saw tremendous changes in attitude—one of the most important being students discovered empathy.”
Increasingly, public schools in America are embracing the inclusion model which is based on the belief that when all children, regardless of their differences, are educated together, everyone gains. When education excludes and segregates, it perpetuates discrimination. When education is more inclusive, concepts of respect, empathy, community, and understanding are cultivated in students. Qualities they can carry on to adulthood.
We Are More Diverse Than Ever
There’s another feature about Beth’s classroom and the Heard Street Discovery Academy: it’s remarkably diverse. Almost 50% of the enrollment at Heard Street is African American, Asian, Hispanic and Native American, while 45% is white. In Beth’s classroom, the students reflect that composition—a composition that is also an indication of demographic trends in America.
They are growing up in a very different America, one that reflects shifting neighborhoods. For example, data from a recent poll showed that 77% of Millennials prefer living in an urban setting. This is a dramatic shift from the decades that saw whites living predominately in the suburbs, and minorities in the cities. Schools are already mirroring these changes as lines and barriers become torn down. More important, employers, educators and parents have recognized we are living in global society. It requires a new level of understanding and appreciation—and the earlier students are exposed to these differences the better prepared they are to live in our communities and adapt to the next generation of the workplace. In the paper, How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students (by Amy Stuart Wells; Diana Cordova-Cobo; and Lauren Fox), one of the assessments is particularly profound: “There is no institution better suited to touch the lives of millions of members of the next generation than our public schools.”
In Beth Grueter’s classroom, the students don’t sit in a row of desks, but gather in groups, or at work tables. There’s a high level of energy in the class—the students are helping each other and they are curious. And as she threads her way among them answering questions or encouraging their efforts, they are learning and collaborating together as one. That’s the impact diversity and inclusion makes in a classroom.