Inclusion at Zeeland Christian School
With more than 54 students who have moderate to significant impairments in a preschool through grade 8 building of 900 students, inclusion is part of daily life at Zeeland Christian Schools (ZCS) in Zeeland, Michigan. That’s just been the reality there for more than twenty-five years, with the help of All Belong.
Bill Van Dyk, Administrator and Principal, has been a strong partner and advocate for Inclusive Education from the beginning. All Belong sat down with Bill to interview him further about his experience.
CLC: Tell us about what it was like to start the inclusion program at Zeeland, when no one else was doing it at this scale.
Bill: Within two weeks of my first day on the job, a parent called wanting to enroll her son with mild autism at Zeeland Christian School. We met with Doug Bouman from All Belong, who explained to her that we were not equipped to educate her child. She put her head on her desk and cried, and it broke my heart. I knew we had to do something.
There were conversations at the time about setting up a separate campus for CLC in Ottawa County, so we said we would try it here. At the last minute, CLC proposed to go for including kids with high needs into the school instead of a separate classroom. I knew it was a gamble; it would be an unbelievable success or I would have a short career here at ZCS. Clearly it wasn’t actually a gamble, since God has blessed it so much.
CLC: What impact did inclusion have on your school?
Bill: We were a typical school, where the popular kids were the stars, and all of a sudden the stars were the kids with disabilities.
It turned the peer structure on its head, and in a good way. How powerful to have kids teaching kids how to reflect the body of Christ! Today, the students have to think about who has special needs.
We saw it change whole families, by helping them celebrate differences. Churches became more inclusive as a result of the kids’ friendships with each other. Today we have an extremely compassionate community for all children.
CLC: What have been the benefits of inclusion?
Bill: Without the inclusion program, we would never have been able to launch a Spanish immersion program or our new Mandarin immersion program. Inclusion built an incredibly high level of trust between Zeeland Christian and the community, and popularized the notion that being different here is cool and special.
Of course, no school could have done it alone. The credibility and experience of All Belong established our inclusion program with a strong reputation. Plus, All Belong provides a gatekeeper for myself as principal. When a parent has very personal questions or concerns about the level of services their child may need, All Belong provides a team of experts who can offer an objective assessment of what is best for that student.
CLC: What are the challenges of inclusion?
Bill: You can say it’s money, but it’s not. God has blessed this program. Zeeland has grown by over 100 students during the last ten years, despite the recession. From a purely business perspective, we have 54 students who brought at least 100 additional family members. Inclusion can be part of a growth model for any school.
God also brings the right people to the right places at the right times. All Belong provides the expertise, so you can bless the whole community with inclusion, and then God will bless your school. All Belong provides an inclusion program plan for each school, but it’s really God’s plan and it’s been fun to be along for the ride.
CLC: Was there any resistance to starting an inclusion program for students at all levels of ability?
Bill: There were questions in the beginning, but we asked everyone to let us try it, and then to tell us about any concerns. In the 24 years since, no parent has said that the inclusive program is a detriment to their kids’ education.
Many parents have said that their kids are becoming better people thanks to the inclusion program.
Teachers were worried they weren’t qualified to teach kids at all levels of ability, but now All Belong has the resources to help understand each child, and then the sky’s the limit. We make decisions around each child, and let the program build around that. It didn’t have to be big, it was just a matter of deciding that students with special needs would be part of our community.
There is powerful scripture behind that decision; all children are created in God’s image and God doesn’t really give us a choice about whether or not to include them.
CLC: Can you share any stories about inclusion at your school?
Bill: For the first couple of years, there was story after story. One second grader would slip out of the room through the fire escape every time the teacher turned her back. Finally, the other kids got the picture and surrounded him when he tried. He wasn’t going to fight twenty other second graders, so he didn’t exit the room again.
The cool thing is, we don’t have stories about it now. Miracles are happening here all the time, it’s just life. It’s part of being a school built on relationships; we all have a role to play.
Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the advancement director at All Belong.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2012 Inclusive newsletter – All Belong’s semiannual newsletter. Updated Fall 2014.