Social Inclusion for All at South Christian High School

High school lunchtime can be an intimidating atmosphere, filled with uncertain social norms and expectations, depending on your grade level and social status. However, a step into the lunch hour at South Christian High School (Grand Rapids, MI) is bustling with students of diverse grade levels, abilities, and backgrounds eating, laughing, and playing games together as part of the school’s Connections Lunch Partners program.

Connections Lunch Partners

Each group of Connections Lunch Partners meets once every two weeks throughout the semester to eat lunch and play games together.

Lunch Partners, which began fifteen years ago, is just one way that South Christian seeks to encourage students to build relationships with students across ages, cultures, special needs, and social groups through their larger Connections program.  By creating opportunities for purposeful interactions, Connections’ mission is to help students see one another through God’s eyes.

South Christian High School started Connections nearly twenty years ago when they began including students with more significant needs in their general education classrooms. They realized students with disabilities were getting the support they needed academically, but the school needed to do more to connect students socially.

“We started with a small group the first few years; I would personally ask students to come alongside one of our students with a disability to offer tutoring or eat with them at lunch, which grew into genuine friendships over time. That first year, we based it on the Circle of Friends model, but tweaked pieces of it to fit high school and it grew from there,” shared Ellie Van Keulen, Inclusion Specialist at South Christian for twenty-one years.

“I appreciated the encouragement from CLC Network to keep going, even when student participation was low. God has truly blessed our efforts. The placement of my classroom is a testament to that – I moved from the back corner of a hallway to the very heart of the school,” remembers Van Keulen.

Currently, more than one-third of the South Christian High 660-person student body participates in Connections in some capacity through peer tutors, special events, Connections Council, themed chapels, or Diversability Week. As Van Keulen shares, “The only qualities we require are a willingness to reach across boundaries, a willingness to serve, an ability to meet weekly, and a sensitivity to the needs of others. If a student has the right attitude, we can coach them on the rest.”

Often, students are eager to participate because they have heard it is a fun way to get involved at school.

“Participating in Connections is a great opportunity to get to know people. It is a free environment where you can be yourself – it’s very welcoming,” shared Cody, a senior.

“I got involved because I thought it was a good way to meet new people and get connected,” commented Sam, a senior Connection Council member who has been a Lunch Partner since ninth grade.

Impacting Students’ Hearts and Lives

Connections Council Bowling Party

Members of the Connections Council meet regularly to plan events, a yearly chapel service, and to hold each other accountable as Lunch Partner leaders.

Vocationally, Connections is preparing students for future careers in special education. Ashtyn, a senior, credits Connections for helping her realize she wanted to specialize in cognitive impairments as part of her future special education degree. Madeline, a senior who wants to become a paraprofessional after she graduates shared, “Peer tutoring helped me become more prepared [for this job] – I’ve learned patience and joy.”

Connections has created competent, compassionate leaders, genuine friends, and better students, not to mention a generation of Christ-followers who daily interact with friends of diverse abilities and backgrounds – something that’s become commonplace at this inclusive Christian school.

“Inclusion has come into every part of our students’ lives – we’ve seen graduates [without disabilities] take what they’ve learned here and bless their communities in so many other ways,” shared Van Keulen.

George Guichelaar, principal at South Christian High for more than twenty years stated,

“What’s absolutely blown us away is how [inclusion] has transformed our school. We initially focused on how it would change students that were receiving services, but we should have focused on how it would impact everyone else.”

Sarah, a senior at South Christian reflects on how she’s grown through her involvement with Connections: “When people think about programs like Connections or inclusive education, they think the helpers are only benefiting the student. But when you start working with students who have Down syndrome or autism spectrum disorder or any kind of disability really, you get so much out of it at the same time. It’s not just a one way benefit.”

“Connections is a gift that keeps on giving,” stated Kevin, a senior Council member who has been a Lunch Partner since entering high school, “You don’t realize how much you’re impacted by it until you step back and realize what a great experience it’s been. I’ve learned that everyone is different and has obstacles to overcome. Helping them through that is a great experience.”

Connections Banquet

Every spring, high school students and alumni celebrate friendships at the annual Connections Banquet.

Sarah continues, “When I started doing peer tutoring, Lunch Partners and working on the Connections Banquet, I was a little bit judgmental and snobby. When I started teaching [students with disabilities] life skills and how to live independently, they taught me so much about myself. I was teaching them, and at the same time they were teaching me how to love unconditionally, and not care what your differences are…”

Like many of her peers, Lindsey, a junior, shared that she has learned pure joy from working with persons with disabilities, “It’s given me a different perspective on life. I’ve learned how to help others even when I don’t feel like it.”

“You learn to respect everyone and treat them like you’d treat your friends,” commented Kerri, a senior Council member: a statement that affirms she is learning and practicing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22 firsthand.

An Encouragement for Schools

From listening to students and staff alike, it is apparent that Connections has transformed the community at South Christian High School. A transformation they adamantly encourage other Christian schools to pursue:

 “Just do it. Start somewhere! Get permission from your administration, and then begin with a small group of students. We’ve learned that lunch is the best time for high school students to connect with one another. After we began Lunch Partners, Connections grew exponentially.”

Van Keulen continued, “The Council (made up of juniors and seniors) has been critical to the success of Connections. They do the brainstorming and organizing for Connections events, hold each other accountable as Lunch Partner leaders, and plan a yearly chapel. Even within the Council, friendships have developed that would not have happened otherwise.”

“Each spring as our senior leaders graduate, I pray for the right students to be part of the Council the next year. And every year without fail, God always raises up the amazing student leaders that we need!” shared Van Keulen, indicating a deep reliance on faith that has been crucial to the school’s twenty-year journey with inclusive education–a journey that clearly God has blessed.

Katie Barkley Image“Social Inclusion for All” by Katie Barkley was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Christian Home & School, a publication of Christian Schools International.

Katie Barkley is the marketing communications manager at CLC Network.

The Right Plan for Grace

It’s been a long road to learning for Grace and her family. After trying more than three different schools in her short school career, Grace has advanced one grade level in her first six months at Northpointe Christian Schools.

Grace was born with a brain disorder that affects her processing and memory, and she lost her hearing in one ear in Kindergarten. When her public school began to focus on developing “life skills” at the expense of her learning, her parents enrolled her in a couple of specialty, segregated programs. Finally, a friend recommended they look into Northpointe Christian Schools (Grand Rapids, MI).

“We were unsure about putting her back into a regular school environment when she was so far behind,” explains Christy, Grace’s mother.

“But from the beginning it was never about their program, it was about Grace’s needs. I don’t know how they do it but they have the right plan in place for her.”

Grace came to CLC Network for testing almost immediately. “We had spent so much on testing at other places,” Christy recalls. “But this was the first time we were allowed to watch the testing happen. Doug Bouman [director of evaluation services] pointed out so many things that we didn’t realize before, and he showed us that she could learn. I wish we had done the testing at CLC Network years ago!”

Thriving at School

The plan put in place by Northpointe Christian and CLC Network has helped Grace thrive in the new environment. Now in fourth grade, Grace is doing some grade-level work and is making progress in reading and math. Last year she would have told you she couldn’t read. Today, she is reading chapter books! Christy gets tears in her eyes when she marvels at Grace’s progress.

“I thought that she would always live at home. Now she could even go to college.”

So, when the opportunity came along to help her employer make a gift, Christy jumped at the chance. She is a senior team leader for Matilda Jane Clothing, so she held a two-day online trunk show at the end of March. The company will contribute 20% of her sales from that time to CLC Network, and Christy is giving an additional 10% to Northpointe Christian Schools’ Student Union.

“I wanted to give back to the places that have given us so much, and to share my story with the families that are still out there,” Christy shares. “No words of gratitude can possibly express how grateful I am to CLC Network and the staff at Northpointe Christian for all the help and support that they have given to our family.”

Elizabeth Dombrowski photoElizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the advancement director at CLC Network.


Inclusive Education at Ada Christian School

Third grade students at Ada Christian School

Third grade learners and friends at Ada Christian School.

When asked how inclusive education fits into Ada Christian’s vision, Principal Melissa Brower is stumped. “Without it, we wouldn’t be whole,” she says. “Inclusive education fits in just like everything else we do.”

Ada Christian School (Ada, Michigan) enrolls approximately 560 students in preschool through 8th grade, and has worked with CLC Network since 1987. Their mission, equipping students for service in God’s world, breaks down into four focus areas: mind, body, soul, and community. Mrs. Brower explains,

“As a school of course we have high standards for our students, but high standards may look different for different learners. Our job is to meet each student where they are and help them grow.”

Melissa Brower with students

Third graders share what they’re learning with principal Melissa Brower.

Part of that growth is making sure parent-teacher conferences and classroom dynamics reflect all areas of personal growth. “Our society can be so focused on judging people by their output, their ability to produce something. We want our students to know that everyone plays a part in God’s Kingdom, no matter their abilities.”

Each week, homeroom classes review how they are treating each other in community. In middle school, small groups led by teachers, youth pastors, and adult volunteers help students reflect on their faith. Commitments like this help create a safe environment of care, which is especially valued by parents of kids with disabilities.

Parents like Jim Horman have an especially strong relationship with the school. His son, Cole, transferred to Ada Christian last year after struggling in a public school. “It’s been a surprise how much Christianity is infused into everything at this school,” he shares.

“They are Christian in their responses to Cole, not just in the title of the school. They help other students see Cole beyond his disability, and talk openly about his needs. As his parents, we feel like an extension of the team surrounding him with compassion and understanding.”

Ada 03

Sixth graders demonstrating that everyone is part of God’s family with a “family portrait”.

“I couldn’t express strongly enough how positive our experience at Ada Christian has been,” reflects Randy Russo, whose daughter Isabelle is enrolled in 7th grade. “As a parent of a child with a disability, that positive experience becomes emotional for us. The teachers and students just accept her so easily, she blends into the school in all capacities without hesitation. The feeling of acceptance in this school is incredibly unique.”

Ada Christian continues to refine its approach. This year, Jim Hapner became the first full-time Inclusion Specialist. “I’ve been really impressed by how the school’s vision guides everyone here, helping us work together,” he reflects. “I look forward to working closely with students who may struggle to meet social and academic challenges.”

Linda Slotsema has served as an instructional aide at Ada Christian for more than thirteen years. Over that time, she’s observed many changes in how teachers react to students with special needs.

“Our teachers are proactive about getting help for their students — not for the purposes of getting them out of the classroom, but to make sure they are successful inside of the general education classroom.”

Mrs. Brower shares some of the demonstrations of success she sees in her day. “It’s the little things that are really such big things. Like during a band concert, seeing a student reach out and calm the person next to her who may be panicking over the change in routine. Or watching a student hurry out, but when his friend reaches out to say goodbye he stops, and takes time to recognize that person and ask about his day. That’s the picture of Christlike behavior we are striving for.”

Elizabeth Dombrowski photo

Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the advancement director at CLC Network. 

This article originally appeared in the 2014 Inclusive newsletter – CLC Network’s semiannual newsletter.

Join Us for a Training this Spring!

Phil Stegink, CLC Network director of educational services, presenting at a Woodcock-Johnson IV training in Fall 2014.

Phil Stegink, CLC Network director of educational services, presenting at a Woodcock-Johnson IV training in Fall 2014.

We travel quite extensively throughout the school year to train educators, pastors, church leaders, and volunteers to welcome children and adults at all levels of ability into their congregations. This spring, we’ll be traveling and presenting from the west coast to the east coast and many places in between.

We invite you to listen in on a presentation or stop by our exhibit booth at one of the events below!

Note: Some events require registration and are only open to specific audiences; check each event website for more information.

January 19: Christ Memorial Church (Holland, MI)

Barbara J. Newman will be presenting on Autism Spectrum Disorder and inclusion within the church setting

January 21-24: Children’s Pastors Conference – East (Chattanooga, TN)


January 29-31: Calvin Symposium on Worship (Grand Rapids, MI)

Presentation: “Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship: Vertical Habits In Action” with Barbara J. Newman and Betty Grit

February 4-7: Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (Baltimore, MD)

Presentation: “Let Me Try That!: Learning from Churches Including Persons with Disabilities” with Barbara J. Newman

February 7:  Northeast Ohio Special Needs Conference (Bay Village, OH)

Barbara J. Newman is a featured speaker at this conference.

February 12-14: Lutheran Educators Association National Administrators Conference (Orlando, FL)

Visit our exhibit booth for inclusive education resources!

February 15: Christ Memorial Church, Contemporary Christian Life Issues Class (Holland, MI)

Presentation: “CLC Network – How Its Work Assists Churches in Cultivating Communities of Inclusion” with Jacki Sikkema

February 16-19: Children’s Pastors Conference – West (Ontario, CA)


March 4-6: National Christian School Association Annual Convention (Atlanta, GA)

Visit our exhibit booth for inclusive education resources!

March 13: Christian Schools International District IV Training (Oostburg, WI)


  • “Three Key Ingredients to Effective Teaching” and “100+ Strategies for Effective Teaching” with Pam Maat
  • “Creating Individual Goals for Special Needs Learners” and “The Basics of Phonological Awareness” with Becky Tubergen
  • “Universal Design for Learning and Assistive Technology” with Elaine Kappers and Becci Zwiers

March 14: St. Mark Missionary Church (Mishewaka, IN)

Presentation: “Including Children with Disabilities in our Faith Communities” with Barbara J. Newman

March 20: That All May Worship (Virginia Beach, VA)

Presenting: Barbara J. Newman

March 19-21: Northwest Ministry Conference (Seattle, WA)


April 17-18: Accessibility Summit (McLean, VA)


  • “Tips, Tweaks, & Tune-ups for Sunday School Curriculum and Classrooms” panel discussion, including Barbara J. Newman
  • “Autism and Your Church” with Barbara J. Newman

April 19-20: Seventh-Day Adventist Church Disability Ministry Training (California)

Presenting: Barbara J. Newman

May 26-30:  Summer Institute on Theology and Disability (Atlanta, GA)

Presenting: Barbara J. Newman


Schedule Your Training

Invite a member of our team to speak at your upcoming conference or event by calling 616-245-8388. Visit our website for a list of potential topics for educators and churches.

Inclusion at Zeeland Christian School

Principal Bill Van Dyk

Zeeland Christian Schoool Principal Bill Van Dyk

With more than 54 students who have moderate to significant impairments in a preschool through grade 8 building of 900 students, inclusion is part of daily life at Zeeland Christian Schools (ZCS) in Zeeland, Michigan. That’s just been the reality there for more than twenty-five years, with the help of CLC Network.

Bill Van Dyk, Administrator and Principal, has been a strong partner and advocate for Inclusive Education from the beginning. CLC Network sat down with Bill to interview him further about his experience.

CLC: Tell us about what it was like to start the inclusion program at Zeeland, when no one else was doing it at this scale.

Logan and friends at ZCS

Logan participates in the annual 12-minute Jingle Jog with his classmates at Zeeland Christian School.

Bill: Within two weeks of my first day on the job, a parent called wanting to enroll her son with mild autism at Zeeland Christian School. We met with Doug Bouman from CLC Network, who explained to her that we were not equipped to educate her child. She put her head on her desk and cried, and it broke my heart. I knew we had to do something.

There were conversations at the time about setting up a separate campus for CLC in Ottawa County, so we said we would try it here. At the last minute, CLC proposed to go for including kids with high needs into the school instead of a separate classroom. I knew it was a gamble; it would be an unbelievable success or I would have a short career here at ZCS. Clearly it wasn’t actually a gamble, since God has blessed it so much.

CLC: What impact did inclusion have on your school?

Bill: We were a typical school, where the popular kids were the stars, and all of a sudden the stars were the kids with disabilities.

It turned the peer structure on its head, and in a good way. How powerful to have kids teaching kids how to reflect the body of Christ! Today, the students have to think about who has special needs.

We saw it change whole families, by helping them celebrate differences. Churches became more inclusive as a result of the kids’ friendships with each other. Today we have an extremely compassionate community for all children.

CLC: What have been the benefits of inclusion?

Caleb and classmates at ZCS

Caleb smiles at a joke during “Family Group” time at Zeeland Christian School.

Bill: Without the inclusion program, we would never have been able to launch a Spanish immersion program or our new Mandarin immersion program. Inclusion built an incredibly high level of trust between Zeeland Christian and the community, and popularized the notion that being different here is cool and special.

Of course, no school could have done it alone. The credibility and experience of CLC Network established our inclusion program with a strong reputation. Plus, CLC Network provides a gatekeeper for myself as principal. When a parent has very personal questions or concerns about the level of services their child may need, CLC Network provides a team of experts who can offer an objective assessment of what is best for that student.

CLC: What are the challenges of inclusion?

John and Ryan

John and Ryan have been friends since their early years at Zeeland Christian School.

Bill: You can say it’s money, but it’s not. God has blessed this program. Zeeland has grown by over 100 students during the last ten years, despite the recession. From a purely business perspective, we have 54 students who brought at least 100 additional family members. Inclusion can be part of a growth model for any school.

God also brings the right people to the right places at the right times. CLC Network provides the expertise, so you can bless the whole community with inclusion, and then God will bless your school. CLC Network provides an inclusion program plan for each school, but it’s really God’s plan and it’s been fun to be along for the ride.

CLC: Was there any resistance to starting an inclusion program for students at all levels of ability?

Bill: There were questions in the beginning, but we asked everyone to let us try it, and then to tell us about any concerns. In the 24 years since, no parent has said that the inclusive program is a detriment to their kids’ education.

Many parents have said that their kids are becoming better people thanks to the inclusion program.

Teachers were worried they weren’t qualified to teach kids at all levels of ability, but now CLC Network has the resources to help understand each child, and then the sky’s the limit. We make decisions around each child, and let the program build around that. It didn’t have to be big, it was just a matter of deciding that students with special needs would be part of our community.
There is powerful scripture behind that decision; all children are created in God’s image and God doesn’t really give us a choice about whether or not to include them.

CLC: Can you share any stories about inclusion at your school?

Bill: For the first couple of years, there was story after story. One second grader would slip out of the room through the fire escape every time the teacher turned her back. Finally, the other kids got the picture and surrounded him when he tried. He wasn’t going to fight twenty other second graders, so he didn’t exit the room again.

The cool thing is, we don’t have stories about it now. Miracles are happening here all the time, it’s just life. It’s part of being a school built on relationships; we all have a role to play.

Elizabeth Dombrowski photoElizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the advancement director at CLC Network.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2012 Inclusive newsletter – CLC Network’s semiannual newsletter. Updated Fall 2014.