The third graders in Room 221 began their day with a chain of hugs.
At this Brooklyn elementary school, children with adaptive speech devices and those without them rushed to offer one another embraces — a shared “good morning” among a group of students who communicate differently.
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The students are part of a unique pilot program at P.S. 15 Patrick F. Daly, in Red Hook, that integrates children who might typically have separate educational paths — those with intellectual or multiple disabilities — with their general education peers.
After the hugs, a teacher asked the children to reflect: “What can you do to feel better when sad?” Some wrote independently. Others pushed buttons for words like “swing” and “sleep” on speech devices, working with teaching assistants who helped them print images for journals.
Then, they all shared together.
Vivian Colavito Abarno, 9, center, is nonverbal and has Angelman syndrome, a genetic disorder. Her social skills have blossomed at P.S. 15, her mother says.
In New York City, the nation’s largest school district, nearly 200,000 students have disabilities, which can include everything from dyslexia to blindness. Families often struggle to navigate a labyrinthine special education system, and many pupils fail to receive all the services they require.
Children with intellectual disabilities, who represent about 3 percent of children and often have a genetic or chromosomal condition like Down syndrome, may leave the public system altogether to attend specialized private schools. Others enroll in a separate citywide district for students with more complex needs.
But at P.S. 15 — where 40 percent of students are in special education — the pilot, which will finish its expansion through fifth grade next fall, could push the boundaries of how schools integrate children in special education, experts said. P.S. 15 teachers are helping a small Texas district, for example, as it prepares to launch a similar program next year.
“It’s not easy,” said Julie Cavanagh, the school’s principal. But, she said, it begins with recognizing the difference between “tokenism” and true inclusion: “We don’t just host inclusive programs. We are an inclusive school.”
The Brooklyn pilot began in 2017 and is distinct from other city offerings for students with disabilities, although it is modeled on a similar program for students with autism. Two teachers lead a class, which includes a small group of general education students and about four children who follow special education plans for those with intellectual disabilities. A team of paraprofessionals and about a dozen in-house therapists work alongside them.
The environment is not necessarily appropriate for all children, but even those in special education-only classrooms are invited to join other students through other means. Pupils who are nonverbal might use their adaptive speech devices to lead morning announcements, for example.
Srikala Naraian, a professor at Teachers College who studies special education, called the approach a “wonderfully unique” departure from the traditional view that “only some kids can be included.”
“Instead, it starts with ‘Who’s been most overlooked in our school system?’” she said.
On one Tuesday morning, third-grade teachers split the class into pairs for a lesson on the book “Honoring Heroes” by Christine Platt. One student read the book aloud, and a paraprofessional helped the other follow along. Later, the six general education students convened with a teacher to consider the meaning of the passages and make predictions for the next chapter.
Across the classroom, the children with special education plans worked on identifying characters in the book or circling every mention of a vocabulary word, often with the help of adaptive devices.
In earlier grades at P.S. 15, younger children sometimes question why a teacher might sit next to certain students more often.
But Catherine Lipkin, a kindergarten teacher, said that teachers welcome discussions and push children to talk about differences — from a classmate’s need for a leg brace to why a teacher wears glasses. “It’s highlighted to the point where it’s not seen as a negative,” she said. “It just becomes not a big deal.”
It is a major change for Keller Chung, 10, a third-grader who has Down syndrome and was born with a heart defect. At the public school he attended in kindergarten, he was often sent to the principal’s office, given lollipops and distracted with an iPad, his father, David Chung, said.
“He was not really seen as a human with any level of achievement, or need to be challenged,” Mr. Chung said. “He was treated like a baby and babysat.”
At P.S. 15, where Keller, who is nonverbal, started in first grade, his speech therapist and other adults push him often, Mr. Chung says, even when he might shy away from answering challenging prompts about lessons.
Families will soon face a new challenge as their children move to upper grades, where similar programs are rarely available, in part because of more complicated class schedules and academic requirements.
But Ms. Cavanagh said she and families have “dreamed” about possibilities. Could science labs and art classes be more easily integrated than math or reading? Could students work together at a school store? A principal at the nearby Harbor Middle School in Red Hook is eager to tackle those questions, and this spring sent a formal program proposal to school officials.
Eve Colavito, a parent who first pushed for the elementary program, is unsure what will be next for her daughter, Vivian, 9, who is nonverbal and has Angelman syndrome, a genetic disorder.
But Ms. Colavito said she has seen Vivian’s social skills “blossom.” And she has watched her develop “an expectation that she’s going to be included — and be seen and heard — wherever she goes.”
“I have to believe some of that is where she goes to school,” Ms. Colavito said. “Our kids aren’t living on the fringes of P.S. 15. They’re living at the center.”
Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.