When it came time to find a preschool program for her 3-year-old twins, Kendra Ely knew it was important to find the right fit.
Like other families, she and her husband were looking for small class sizes and caring teachers who would help their kids grow and get ready for kindergarten. But they had an extra consideration, too.
One of their twins, LJ, has Down syndrome. His sister Harper does not.
“We just had a different caveat we had to think about compared to other families,” she said.
She thinks they found a program that suits her family’s needs — inclusive classrooms at the Underwood Hills Early Childhood Learning Center that combine students with disabilities and those without.
Underwood Hills, part of the Westside Community Schools district, uses a peer model program that pairs up kids with different abilities so they can learn from one another.
Westside isn’t the only district to offer inclusive preschool programs — Bellevue, Elkhorn and Omaha, among others, have similar programs. (Some are offered free of charge, some are parent-pay for general education students.)
The federal government considers inclusive classrooms to be the gold standard for early childhood education. The Nebraska Department of Education also encourages schools to have an even split of special and general education students in early childhood classes.
“Children with disabilities and their families continue to face significant barriers to accessing inclusive high-quality early childhood programs and too many preschool children with disabilities are only offered the option of receiving special education services in settings separate from their peers without disabilities,” the then-secretaries of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Education wrote in a policy statement in 2015.
The early childhood programs at Underwood Hills have grown considerably. There were only seven kids enrolled when director Jeanette Lengemann started 12 years ago. Now, the center serves more than 200 kids, from babies who get home visits to preschoolers who attend morning or afternoon classes to learn their letters and the days of the week.
There are three inclusive classrooms, where kids who do not need special education services learn alongside students with autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, learning delays or other disabilities.
The students are taught the same curriculum, and the special education students generally receive services, such as occupational therapy, inside the classroom instead of being pulled out.
The preschoolers who do not have disabilities can help show their special education classmates the ropes, and in turn they get exposure to classmates with special needs.
“What we like to do in our classrooms is really buddy the students up, so that they walk in the lines together, they’re doing learning activities together, they’re singing together, they’re playing together,” said Kate Staples, an early childhood special education teacher.
“It really fosters and nurtures a sense of belonging for all students,” she said.
Westside spokeswoman Brandi Paul said the district tries to promote inclusivity in older grades too, integrating special education and general education students into the same classroom as much as possible.
LJ is in Staples’ class and Harper is in the classroom next door, a conscious decision their parents and teachers made to encourage the twins’ independence. (The center has two other sets of twins this year.)
Harper has a tendency to finish puzzles for her brother, or give him food on a fork, Ely said.
“I love that Harper wants to help her brother all the time, it’s very endearing,” she said. “But I need him to be independent, too, and not have her feel like she needs to do those things for him.”
The inclusive classroom has taught her kids “acceptance, patience, how to help their fellow student next to them.”
In Staples’ classroom last week, she led the students through a welcome song and one about the weather set to the tune of “Frère Jacques.” The preschoolers wiggled their hips, waved their hands and danced.
“They just want to help and learn and grow together,” Staples said.