25 Years of Inclusive Education
This year, we are pleased to celebrate twenty-five years since All Belong launched our first inclusive education program in a Christian school. Since then, inclusive education has transformed our communities by honoring the image of God in every person, regardless of their abilities.
As we look to the future of expanding inclusion to Christian schools nationwide, we remember how change happened for the Christian Learning Center (as we were known then) and all the faithful partners who believed in our vision: that students with disabilities are part of our Christian covenant, and belong in our schools and communities.
Building on our relationships with Christian schools established through CLC Resource Rooms, we were able to convince many schools—fairly quickly—to include students in the general education classroom. We are so grateful to our earliest partners who stepped out in faith and changed our communities for these twenty-five years, and for many years to come.
Our first school partner was the Grand Rapids Christian School Association (GRCSA), who launched the Christian Learning Center under their governance in 1979. Bill Gritter, GRCSA’s administrator from 1977- 1993, recalls, “We had a vision for Christian education, that it should be available to all students regardless of their ability or disability. We took a risk, but we trusted God with that vision.” Gritter continues, “CLC has been such a positive influence in the life of many schools. I think that’s evidence of God’s approval for what we were trying to do.”
1989: ZEELAND CHRISTIAN SCHOOL
Zeeland Christian was the first partner school to prove that inclusive education could be possible in West Michigan. Bill Van Dyk was in his second year as administrator at the time; he recalls, “I knew it was a gamble; it would be an unbelievable success or I would have a short career here. Clearly it wasn’t a gamble, since God has blessed it so much.”
Their extraordinary commitment to students with disabilities continues today, with more than 60 students receiving services and participating in general education classrooms at some level. “Miracles are happening here all the time, it’s just life,” shares Van Dyk about the inclusive education program.
1990: CRESTON CHRISTIAN SCHOOL
“We made a lot of mistakes; inclusion was brand new!” shares Greg Yoder, a All Belong teacher consultant and former inclusion specialist at Creston Christian School. “But it was such a supportive environment, with a strong sense of community and lots of prayer. Over years, the program became a model of good inclusion.”
Tom Visser, Creston’s principal at the time, welcomed twenty students from CLC’s former program at Seymour Christian to their school. “God’s providence put people into the right positions at the right times. The year leading up to this was one of my most difficult; we had to trust God and we didn’t know where it would take us. It’s easy to say afterwards, that was the Holy Spirit working, but it was a challenge to trust Him at the time.”
Creston Christian School closed their building in 2010, and their inclusion students are now served at both Rockford Christian School and Grand Rapids Christian Elementary.
1991: JENISON CHRISTIAN SCHOOL // GRAND RAPIDS CHRISTIAN HIGH SCHOOL
Inclusive Education teacher Scott Schermer remembers well the beginning years of inclusion at Jenison Christian. “With one of the first resource rooms (in 1980), inclusion was the next logical step for us,” he shares. Approximately twelve students with special needs enrolled in Jenison for the first year.
“Our school became much more representative of the body of Christ, where everyone belongs and has a place.” Schermer remembers a school-wide biking event, and the school purchased tandem bikes so that kids with mobility issues could still participate. “A big part of the success was the strong focus on the social atmosphere as part of our student learning.”
1992: BYRON CENTER CHRISTIAN SCHOOL // MILLBROOK CHRISTIAN SCHOOL
Bob Van Wieren, Byron Center Christian School’s administrator, was new to the school when CLC proposed an inclusive education model. But after learning about inclusion and its potential, he developed a lifelong commitment to the idea and fostered that commitment in the school. Today, Van Wieren serves as President of the All Belong board.
Van Wieren gives credit to All Belong’s Executive Director, R.H. “Bear” Berends, for convincing so many local schools to try inclusive education. “When he started talking about all of our children being part of the covenant, about belonging to all of us, that really made sense to me. The school community never really balked at the idea, it just felt like this is the way the Kingdom is supposed to be.”
1993: HOLLAND CHRISTIAN HIGH SCHOOL
As students began to graduate after their eighth grade year from the inclusive education program at Zeeland Christian School, many enrolled at nearby Holland Christian High School. Stan Konynenbelt, a parent and board member for Holland Christian at that time, explains, “The special education teachers took ownership of the need for these students to be a part of our school, even though inclusion can get difficult as kids get older.”
Konynenbelt recalls, “As a parent, I never felt like there was any risk to sending our daughter to the inclusion programs at Zeeland Christian or Holland Christian, because the staff and leaders shared our faith and sense of purpose. When we are united in faith, it makes a big difference to what we can accomplish.”
1994: SOUTH CHRISTIAN HIGH SCHOOL
Ellie Van Keulen can still point out her first classroom at South Christian: a small room tucked away in a back hallway. Today, her classroom is at the very heart of the school. Shortly after launching inclusive education and enrolling CLC students at South Christian, parents and school leaders wanted their students to become more socially involved.
“I knew the students in my classroom, but I didn’t know most of the students in the hallways,” recalls Van Keulen. That was the spark that started South Christian’s Connections program. This program includes peer tutoring, lunch partners, an annual banquet, and other ways for students to establish friendships. Today, nearly half of the entire student body is involved in the Connections program, making inclusion an active reality.
Since 1994: 58 MORE SCHOOLS
CLC continued to partner with even more schools, eventually staffing educational support services in more than 49 West Michigan schools by 2000. Now, as a consulting firm, we bring this expertise and experience to more than 58 schools in 4 states.
We are always grateful to our partners who have brought us to this point in our history, and for those who continue to challenge us to do more for the Kingdom!
To learn more about how your school can welcome and support students at all levels of ability, contact us at 616-245-8388 or by email.
Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the advancement director at All Belong.