Celebrating Pierce’s Gifts: A Blessed Partnership

Reuben and Pierce

Mr. Van Til and Pierce work together in the storage room at West Side Christian School.

You need to walk quickly to keep up with Pierce. He’s one of West Side Christian School’s (Grand Rapids, MI) hardest workers, and one of the fastest. When he and Reuben Van Til, West Side Christian’s custodian, get together, it’s all business… and Pierce clearly loves it.

Depending on the season, Pierce and Mr. Van Til will rake leaves, shovel snow, or work in the garden. “Once it snows, he has his own snow shovel,” Mr. Van Til shares. “Typically at recess he’ll just take that out and clear the sidewalk, without ever being asked.”

Pierce came to West Side Christian in fourth grade, after attending a public school. Right away, he began staying after assemblies to help clear the chairs. His teachers also noticed his interest in working with Mr. Van Til. Kim Mast, paraprofessional, remembers,

“Pierce would be doing reading, writing, and math. Every time Mr. Van Til rode the tractor or walked by, he was very focused on that. He wanted to see what Mr. Van Til was doing, so we would start watching. That’s how we discovered Pierce’s gifts were in manual work and his interest was in whatever Mr. Van Til was doing.”

The next year, Pierce’s teachers arranged for him to officially work with Mr. Van Til. “It makes school much more enjoyable for Pierce,” Mrs. Mast explains. “Just like gym or art class makes school enjoyable for some kids, this kind of work makes school fun for Pierce… It makes for interesting sentences in writing. If Mr. Van Til is the topic, it really helps. It’s so much more interesting to Pierce than other things.”

“If it’s a snow day, Pierce has tears in his eyes,” shares his mother, Koley Hockeborn. “He wants to go and be part of the school. He’s learning from the other kids, too.”

Pierce has a cognitive impairment, and was placed in a segregated classroom for his early schooling. A neighbor encouraged his mother to consider West Side Christian for Pierce, noticing that when he was around other kids his ticks and language would improve. After meeting with West Side Christian’s leadership and teachers, “They said they could teach him. It was scary and a big step, but he has improved in leaps and bounds.” Pierce is now reading, he is learning penmanship, and he is doing multiplication.

“The academic piece is hard for Pierce, but his gifts are his strength and hard work,” explains Maria Bultsma, Educational Support Services Coordinator.

“This arrangement is really using Pierce’s gifts as best we can. He’s still spending time in class, but he’s using his gifts to do things like distributing the milk, picking up chairs after chapel, and paper recycling. The scheduled days with Mr. Van Til are motivation for him.”

Pierce and Reuben working together

Mr. Van Til shows Pierce how to use the leaf blower.

Pierce’s favorite job is riding the tractor. “Last week when we were doing leaves, we’d fill my trailer full of leaves and he rides in the trailer. You don’t see him a whole lot happier than that, and it was a big help to have him out there with me,” says Mr. Van Til. “He likes it when we go in the storage room. He takes my keys and opens the door and turns on the lights. He’s a very hard worker, he works just as hard as I do.”

Pierce’s mother has noticed the difference in Pierce. “Pierce’s teachers at West Side Christian know him, they are so in tune with him. He and Mr. Van Til took to each other right away, and now he’s learning life skills. They created this program for him,” Mrs. Hockeborn shares. Mrs. Bultsma credits CLC Network teacher consultants for providing additional brainstorming and encouragement. “They have provided insight to possible options [for Pierce],” she reflects. “Most of all, [CLC Network consultants] have listened to our concerns and have been very encouraging to our staff.”

“We are working on goals for his future, what he might do after books and after school,” adds Mrs. Bultsma.

“There is a lot of learning going on, a lot of happy things, and a different kind of learning. Pierce has a lot of gifts given to him from God and we’re just trying to figure out how to use those gifts.”

Before working at West Side Christian, Mr. Van Til built custom cabinetry. He’s had the chance to show Pierce his shop and hopes to teach him about a few tools and their basic functions. “It’s a lot nicer than my garage,” says Pierce. “I got to try the air hose,” he remembers with a smile.

Watching Pierce and Mr. Van Til together, their connection shines in both of them. As Mr. Van Til reflects, “It’s advantageous for me and for Pierce to be doing this. I feel a little more important when we work together. It’s not the most glamorous job in the world but I’ve always felt called to be here and share some of my knowledge with the kids.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 Inclusive newsletter – a biannual newsletter published by the CLC Network advancement office. Sign up on the CLC Network website.

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

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Diverseability Week: How South Christian Celebrates Students’ Differences

Last week, we shared an article about Connections, a program at South Christian High School that seeks to encourage students to build relationships with students across ages, cultures, special needs, and social groups.  In today’s post, Sarah Ress, a senior at the school and member of the Connections leadership, highlights one school-wide activity that celebrates differences: Diversability Week.

Normal. It’s a word used all the time. We refer to this word frequently, and even idolize it. “Why can’t I be normal? Why can’t you act normal? Why does my life have to be so weird, I just want to be normal!” Or, we also comment on how abnormal things are, and how it makes us uncomfortable. “She’s so different, why isn’t she normal? They act so stupid, why can’t they be normal?” Well in all honesty, “normal” isn’t something that anyone can grasp. We are all abnormal in our own ways, and guess what – that’s ok. Being different does not  lower our worth, it gives us unique perspectives to share with the world!

South Christian DisArt Festival

South Christian’s student art show highlighted uniquely made masterpieces.

At South Christian High School (Grand Rapids, MI) this past April, we dedicated a week to celebrating the fact that we are not all made with the same cookie cutter. It was appropriately titled “Diversability Week”. Throughout the week we had a new, diverse focus each day and a devotion for every morning. Monday was our kickoff and students were given an overview of the week, along with a devotion about what it means to be a diverse community. Tuesday we celebrated our international students with 22 flags hung in our hallways representing the different ethnicities of our student body and a chapel with a guest speaker. Wednesday we encouraged students to go out of their comfort zone and befriend someone they normally would not, and then we put encouragement notes up on all of the students’ lockers.

South Christian Ability Fair

The Ability Fair allowed students to hear from a diverse group of community organizations.

We also had an “Ability Fair” in our gym, where students could step out of their normal routine and talk to diverse organizations from our community. A few of those who visited were Mary Free Bed, Camp Sunshine, and CLC Network. On Thursday, we focused on our students involved in inclusive education. We had a chapel with a senior testimony from one of those students, and songs led by some of the other students and their friends. Friday’s purpose was to show that being different truly can lead to great things. That afternoon we had the Grand Rapids Pacers Wheelchair Basketball team come in and play our varsity boys team in wheelchairs. It was an educative and fun way to end the week.

Since Diversability Week, I have had many students and teachers approach me and tell me what they learned from the week. Some people’s eyes were opened to our unique community by the chapels and the devotionals, while others learned more through the assembly and the fair. For me, the week always hits home. I enjoy watching students become more accepting in the weeks that follow and hearing kids talk about what they learned from the fair. I love that the week highlights people, cultures, and talents that are not the norm for most of us! It teaches us that this “normal” that we so often obsess over is not necessary. We learned that being different makes us special and unique but in no way less of a person, and that is why we love having Diversability Week. We should never be afraid to be ourselves!

Sarah RessSarah Ress is a senior at South Christian High School, where she’s been a part of the Connections Council for four years. Sarah will be a freshman at Aquinas College in the fall, majoring in Special Education or Psychology. 

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.