Emily J. Wilson
The second Annual Essex County Learning Community (ECLC) Summer Institute kicked off on August 7th with a compelling keynote address delivered by Patricia Lampron (pictured above), Principal of The Henderson K-12 Inclusion School, located in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. This year’s Summer Institute was focused on the theme of “Digging Deeper on Difference,” to lift and celebrate student diversity across ability, race, culture, class, and gender. Lampron was joined in her keynote remarks by her Henderson colleagues, Joe Cahill, Student Behavior Support Specialist and Sheneal Parker, Director of Instruction in Grades 2-6 (pictured below).
[Photo credits: Diana LeBeaux]
Principal Lampron’s started her talk – aptly titled Creative Collaboration for Inclusion – by engaging the audience in a story of how she arrived at the Henderson, a Boston Public School, in 2009 to take the reins from its namesake, former leader and founding principal Bill Henderson. Principal Lampron said that Henderson, who is visually impaired and remains a champion for normalizing learning differences to this day, helped Lampron understand what inclusion truly looks like through his ethical leadership.
Soon after taking over from Henderson, on her first day as principal, Lampron caught some boys horsing around by wetting paper towels and throwing them on the ceiling to stick. She approached them and said, “Gentleman, come with me…I saw you doing this,” and they replied, looking at her with a bit of wonder, “You can see?” Chuckling with the audience, Lampron recalled how it suddenly dawned on her that “normal” to these students was a principal who couldn’t see. “Our differences are our strengths…. Differences are normal!” Lampron happily shouted, finishing the story. She added that as children, we all deserve to learn, and as parents of children, there is not one adult who sends their child to school without the hope that they will learn.
Lampron explained that inclusion can mean very different things to different people. “I taught at an inclusive school as a teacher – I didn’t know any better – we allowed students with disabilities to be in our school, they were in a separate room, they didn’t go to recess, and they were watched by aides in the cafeteria. They couldn’t sit where they wanted to.” This she said, is far from the model of The Henderson, where there are no Resource Rooms or exclusion at lunch and recess, only general education classrooms where all students are welcome.
Reflecting on her own early experiences as a student growing up in the public school system, Lampron spoke powerfully of how, years ago in her elementary classroom, children who excelled in traditional learning formats were labeled as “stars” and separated from students who struggled with reading and other subjects. Students who struggled were deemed “sunbeams” and not afforded opportunities to learn and develop based on their strengths. Instead, they were viewed through a deficit lens. “Because one group was perceived as smarter,” Lampron said, they were immediately tracked and sorted from each other. This was a formative, salient experience for Lampron – who explained that she was herself categorized as a sunbeam.
In sharp contrast to her own elementary school experience, Lampron highlighted the ways in which The Henderson School is challenging the concept of “normative” in learning. The Henderson’s mission is to serve all students with diverse learning needs, ensure meaningful access to all, and make a daily practice of showing why inclusion matters. “This is what we mean by inclusion,” she said, introducing a definition built upon Henderson’s unique organizational norms:
There are structural barriers to full inclusion within public school systems, Lampron said, including bias, stigmatization, and anxiety among parents about integrating children with diverse learning needs together in the classroom. In response to these, Lampron described that the Henderson’s foundational work is about changing mindsets, that is, showing school staff, teachers, parents, and community members that all students can grow in a regular classroom.
Lampron used a recent example of a Henderson ski trip to illustrate her point. Of the 60 children who went, all of them were able to ski. The key, Lampron said, was both simple and complex. She explained that through meticulous advanced planning among her staff team – for the cold, for the diverse learning needs of each student, and for differentiated instruction – all of the children experienced success. This led Lampron to pose a powerful challenge to the audience about whether the inclusive practices deployed by the Henderson on a ski trip could work in schools and classrooms—reminding them that as a society, most of us still cling to the idea that children must be segregated in order to learn. And yet, she said, we know from the evidence that, “If you put people in a room who are different, it’s better for everyone.” To reinforce her point, she reminded ECLC participants that there are no separate grocery stores for people with learning differences. “We are in a global world of difference and we need to celebrate difference.”