Day Schools, Special Needs and Morality
EducationA Personal Story

Day Schools, Special Needs and Morality

A family learns the hard way that the values taught aren't always practiced.

Liam Denneen’s two sisters, Darcy, 14, and Rachel, 11, have benefited from a Jewish day school education.
Liam Denneen’s two sisters, Darcy, 14, and Rachel, 11, have benefited from a Jewish day school education.

There once lived a family of four: mom, dad and two bright little girls. They lived in a suburb far away from downtown, where life was quieter and slower-paced.

Though it was not the country per se, they passed horse farms on the way to the gas station and could ride a bike 30 miles north without seeing a car on a Saturday morning. Everything they needed was within a 15-minute car ride, except rides to the airport twice a week for his work. The public schools were suitable, and the parents assumed the girls would end up there.

Anne Kelman Denneen

But once the girls became school-age, the family learned of a private school in another area of town that was offering more. Smaller classes, better teachers, more resources, and, best of all, values. The parents were sold on the values the school espoused.

The children at this school were taught a value system, explicitly, throughout their years at this school. The young ones would be taught with games and puppetry. The older ones would be taught through writings and community service.

What a great thing for a school to offer, the parents thought. Here was a school actively teaching kids values in a world where often the old notion of values was just that, antiquated and nonexistent. The parents agreed they wanted this school for their kids because of the values they were teaching there.

So life became a little busier, a little more complicated. Going to this school meant a long commute in heavy traffic twice a day. It meant making sure the girls were involved after school so they would be included in the school community. It meant making an effort to invite people over to their house all the way up in the far suburbs, which was often not an easy sell.

But it worked for a few years, and life was good because the parents believed that the girls were learning important values, such as respect, community and morality.

A third child was born, a boy, and the family was thrilled to add a new life, full of excitement and potential, into the world. But a baby meant less time in the day, and a long commute twice a day was no longer feasible. The family decided to move.

The family based the move on this wonderful school, which was part of their daily life, their community and their family. They moved to a house within 10 minutes of this school, believing that their kids would be there for the next 13 years.

The years went by, and the baby grew up. Something was not quite right, though, and the parents started to worry. There were things this little boy could not do, and life became challenging. The parents searched for answers and did not find any for a long time.

They researched and persevered until one day they found the answer, and it changed their lives. It shattered their lives, all of them.

The world in which this family was living was no longer happy. This new world became scary and uncertain and confusing and depressing. It meant doctors’ appointments, hospitals, procedures, isolation, separation from one another and sadness.

A new reality set in, and life was pretty bad. But the parents believed they still had their school and their community behind them. With community, they could make it through.

The boy went through a long treatment, and he didn’t just survive. He thrived. The family tried to practice normalcy. Their world had been turned upside-down, but they continued their daily routines as much as possible.

The parents were very busy. The boy went to preschool and was happy. The girls continued with their school involvement, while the boy attended all the events with his parents at the school. He sat through the plays, the sports events, the ceremonies and the carpool on a daily basis. He knew the school inside out, and everyone knew him.

The boy grew up and was ready for kindergarten. The parents applied to the school, to their community, to their family away from family, to admit the boy. The parents wanted the boy to have the opportunity to learn and be part of an environment that taught the values in which they believed. They wanted the boy to join his sisters and his friends in a place of warmth and love and nurturing.

Liam Denneen, 6, is now in a mainstream kindergarten class in a public elementary school.

The school turned the boy away. The school said the boy did not fit within its standards. The boy was beneath those standards. The school could not accommodate him.

The parents pleaded with the school to include the boy, to give him a chance. The parents would pay for extra help. The parents could help the school start a program for the boy and other children like the boy.

The school said it did not want a program. It did not want the money for extra help. It did not want the boy.

What happened to the values? Does morality not teach that this boy should be included? Does morality instead teach that children with special needs should be taught in a separate environment? Have we not established through history that separate is not equal?

What about family and community? Is it right to separate siblings? Does that sit well, to take one child out of his preschool class and tell him, “You are not welcome here,” as his childhood friends march into the beautiful private gates ahead?

Is it OK to require families who have a child with special needs to spend hours in the car driving all over town to different schools because one school won’t accept all? If not a morality issue, is that community? The family wondered. And once again, their world changed.

It is with knowledge that we form our perception of the world. When reality makes it clear that things are not as they seem, alienation sets in. It seems the family’s community was not really behind them.

Pleasantries aside, those at the top do not want to be inclusive. The values they speak are not truly practiced. The marketing materials for the school, shouting out social justice for all, really mean only for some.

The family was told inclusion is not supported at the top. The family wonders whether that is OK with the school community. Is it OK that this school teaches children values without practicing what it teaches?

Apparently, yes, it is OK with most. If it does not affect me, I am OK with it, and I will love the school, and I will give it money so it can help my typical child and my typical child’s typical friends.

And the family is left wondering: Can this really be my community?

What can we do to change this perception? The family has been told there is nothing that can be done. That is the way things are because there is no support in the private school arena for the inclusion of children with special needs.

Is it hard to accommodate children with special needs? The answer is no. Does it take planning and money? Yes, it does.

Would the school community like to spend money on including these children? No, it would not. Would this same school community pay for a luxurious addition to the school instead? The answer is yes.

Where should these children go? The community would like these children to go to special little schools or ride special little buses to and from the public school, where they will stay in the small classroom at the end of the hall, away from everything.

The community does not need to worry about these children, as the community at large is not responsible for a child such as this, at least not directly. But is there a moral obligation?

These are little people. These are the kids you see in the grocery store, at religious services, at restaurants, at the playground, down the street and even next door. These are kids just like yours, except they make life even more interesting.

They are everywhere. They are part of this community, like it or not. There are many of them. Forgotten? Ignored? Excluded for sure.

The family is no longer happy. The family is left wondering.

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