In June I had the privilege of attending the year end celebration for the PLACE (Practical Living and Community Education) students at Memorial Composite. I get the pleasure of attending special events like these by playing a supporting role for several schools in Parkland. This was my first time attending a PLACE Grad. I didn’t know what to expect but thought it would be a very scaled back version of a typical graduation ceremony to celebrate the achievements of some of the special students in our school community in a way that would be appropriate, not too loud and active, but happy and fun. And for the most part, that’s exactly what it was. There were parents and decorations and laughter and certificates. However, this celebration also contained one of the most moving moments of my 20+ years working with diverse learners.
Things started slowly. It’s an exercise in logistics for the PLACE class to move within the school as a large group. Gradually, the EA’s brought the students with wheelchairs into the music room and parked them in the front row. Other students trickled into the room with varying degrees of assistance. Jeanette, the PLACE teacher, MC’ed the ceremony starting with the usual pleasantries welcoming parents and acknowledging guests. And she shed a few tears of both pride and sadness at the thought of some of her students moving on.
We (the audience) were pleased as we discovered that we were going to be treated to a musical performance. Once again, we waited for a moment while most of the students were positioned up front where they waited patiently to begin their performance. Just as they were about to begin, on cue, about fifteen staff members who work throughout MCHS joined around the students to begin singing We Shall Overcome. Oh, that was a treat! The PLACE students were so proud to be up front performing. Many of them knew the words. Those students who were non-verbal were keeping the beat, mostly. And all of them had eyes that were sparkling with joy. By the way, several of the teachers had sparkling eyes too and were singing through their tears. This is why.
Now just when you think that this little tale is a story of how teachers do love their special students, there was a bridge in the song as the chorus of We Shall Overcome ended and segued to Lean on Me. It was at that moment that about thirty or forty students from the Memorial Choir poured out of a side door of the classroom and surrounded the PLACE students and staff members. It was an awesome sight!
They rocked it out! The PLACE students were absolutely beaming at being part of a choir and they knew their stuff. They had stage presence, most knew some or all of the words, and most could clap on beat. The MCHS Choir students just love to sing and were sharing their gift of music with their peers. And to add a little context, this was the last day of classes. There had been a carnival in the school that morning, students were receiving their timetables for next year, and it was just a little chaotic to say the least. But these students showed up and were committed to their school mates! This is why.
I tell you there was not a dry eye in the house. Parents were overjoyed with the performance. Three boxes of tissue were being passed around the audience. This was such a big deal for them too! Their kids have not usually been the ones at center stage. Of course there was a standing O! This is why.
There has been much debate over Inclusive Education in Alberta since it was formally adopted in 2010. Let’s be real. It is not appropriate for the PLACE students to be enrolled in a high school math, social studies, PE class, etc. It is not designed for them and would not provide them with the education that they need. Nor is it appropriate to only have our PLACE students learn entirely in a segregated classroom. However, there are ways, as so beautifully demonstrated by the staff and students at MCHS where our diverse learners can be fully included. They are members of our community and because of that should be part of our public education system. This is why!
If the measure of a society is by how they treat their weakest members (quoted by many – Churchill, Pope John Paul II, and more), then the community of Memorial Composite is a great place to be! And Alberta Education is firmly planted on the right track for all of our citizens.
I came to realize, after the fact, that the performance at the PLACE Grad was actually a reprise from a performance earlier in the month where the PLACE students joined the Memorial Choir for their year end performance at the Arden Theater. Please enjoy.
This is why!