Every month, parents at Barron Park Elementary School in Palo Alto are invited to an "inclusion coffee" to share their thoughts about a new pilot program at the school -- taking the inclusion of some special-education students to a significant new level.
Where previously a student with disabilities might have spent most or all of the day in a "special day" class, initiatives on two Palo Alto campuses this fall are making some of those students permanent members of regular classrooms.
In Nick Foote's third-grade classroom at Barron Park, for example, a boy whose autism previously would have kept him largely segregated is a full-fledged member of a class full of typically developing kids.
Other children, fully aware of his differences, look out for him and -- when all else fails -- tend to gather around and hug him.
A similar initiative is playing out at Greendell School where, for the first time, one of the Preschool Family classes for 4-year-olds, with 22 children, contains eight special-education students.
"It's been shockingly smooth," said Greendell Principal Sharon Keplinger, who runs the district's pre-kindergarten programs.
"You go in there and you really can't tell (which children have disabilities), and these are complicated cases.
"The issues that come up in our parent meetings are no different from the issues that come up in any of our parent-participation programs," Keplinger said.
Holly Wade, the school district's director of special education, said the inclusion initiatives spring from her department's recently crafted vision statement, which aims to "foster inclusive educational climates where individuality and diversity are respected, honored and celebrated."
Full inclusion this year is happening for many special-ed students at Barron Park, while others are "mainstreamed" for only parts of the day, Wade said.
"When you truly start talking about inclusive education, it truly is for all kids, not just the kids in special education or students identified with special needs," she said.
"If you look at it as an opportunity for learners to learn about difference, then you've framed it differently. We've created an environment where we're going to have a compassionate group of young people who are going to understand in its more pure form what 'difference' looks like."
Wade said the initiative at Barron Park is "truly a pilot" and that numbers of special education students in any given class "will not exceed a natural proportion."
"Because students haven't been in those classrooms before, we hadn't known what to expect," Wade said. "There's intrinsic compassion (in the students), and we're there to provide the support as needed."
If the inclusion pilot succeeds, it will bring an added benefit for special-education students: the ability to stay on the same campus through their elementary years. Because special-ed students comprise only about 10 percent of the Palo Alto school population -- 1,250 kids -- they are currently moved around to different campuses where programs best match their needs.
"Obviously that's an issue for students who are challenged by transition," Wade said. "Elementary schools are places where students should be able to build a sense of community."
All 17 Palo Alto campuses will observe "Inclusive Schools Week" next week, Dec. 5-9.
Events will kick off Monday at 7 p.m. with the showing of a film, "Including Samuel," at school-district headquarters at 25 Churchill Ave., followed by a discussion facilitated by Wade and Palo Alto school board Vice President Camille Townsend.
The two will provide information about the district's new inclusion programs, and live Spanish translation of the film and discussion will be available.
Individual campuses also will hold "inclusion" activities, including accessible yoga classes at Terman Middle School and Barron Park and the showing of the film "I am Norm" at Terman.
At Jordan Middle School, students will have the opportunity to write about their differences on an outdoor poster, according to Barbara Shufro, a parent and member of the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education.
Students at Ohlone Elementary School recently completed a week-long "abilities awareness training," Shufro said.
Staff at several other elementary schools said they plan to read books during library time about accepting differences, she said.
Wade and Keplinger stressed that parent communication is critical to the success of the inclusion pilots.
"The parent participation piece is very important," Keplinger said. "It's good for parents to see that kids this age can do certain behaviors that have nothing whatever to do with their disabilities."
Wade said the "Inclusion Coffees" at Barron Park are open to all parents at the school as a means to keep an open dialogue.
At one recent gathering, the parent of a special-education student shared her excitement that her son had been invited to a birthday party and, for the first time, participated in a field trip to NASA.
A mother of a typically developing girl asked her if she minded that the girls were always hugging her son. The mother got a little teary and said, "It's fine.
"It's not just OK; it's wonderful."