Lafayette reaching out to special-needs students

Like many little girls, 6-year-old Ellie Grace Guidry loves to dance and adores shoes.

“The higher the better,” laughed her mom, Molly. She shared a photo of Ellie Grace trying on red, high-heeled shoes in a room full of educators during a training session on inclusion practices for children with special needs.

In schools, inclusion refers to the placement of students with special needs in a regular education classroom. In the past two years, the Lafayette Parish School System, with funding from the state, has expanded inclusion options through training provided by SpecialQuest Consulting, which specializes in inclusion practices. Consultants were in Lafayette this week for workshops that targeted school system employees and public and non-public preschool employees who work with special-needs children.

As part of one of the training, parents, like Guidry, shared the impact of inclusion on their own children. Many of the stories moved some educators to tears.

Ellie Grace was born with Down syndrome. In the first year of her life, she couldn’t hear, which has affected her speech abilities somewhat.

“She’s very compassionate. If you sneeze, she says, ‘Bless you’ and ‘Are you OK?’ She knows her shapes, letters, colors,” said Molly Guidry. “The inclusion with other children has brought her to that point.”

Most everything you need to know about Ellie Grace is on a flier her mom gives to her teacher, bus driver and other adults who play a role in nurturing the 6-year-old at school: flashcards are one of her favorite ways to learn things, she knows some sign language, and she may need a hug if a loud noise makes her cry.

Deirdra Batiste adopted twin girls, Lynnsey and Leah, who turned 4 on Friday and will start school in August.

Lynnsey has some developmental delays, which makes learning more of a challenge for her, Batiste said.

Where the girls will start school in August is a decision that will take careful consideration, but Batiste said she wants Lynnsey to be included in a class with other kids her age so she can learn as much from them as her teacher. She said she wants teachers to understand that her daughter’s challenges aren’t limitations.

“All children can learn,” Batiste said after the training session.

“They need to find the way that works best for that child and encourage them. Just because they have a disability doesn’t mean they can’t learn.”

The district’s inclusion grant was initially for two years and ended in the fall 2013, but due to the district’s success, the grant was extended for a year, said Christine Duay, Lafayette Parish School System early childhood director.

The school district created more “reverse mainstream” classes — classes that include both special needs and non-special needs students who are taught by a special education teacher.

“In our first year, we started with about 50 students and in our second year we grew to assisting 125 students,” Duay said. “We also provided services to children with special needs in Head Start centers and day care centers — even at home.”

The school district provides services, such as speech therapy, to preschoolers 3- and 4-years-old.

In the past, parents scheduled services at a school site, but as part of the grant project, services are now provided to the children in their own environment where they receive educational services — whether it’s at home, a private day care or a church-sponsored program, Duay said.