Today is World Down Syndrome Day, the day set aside each year to celebrate all of those who are blessed with “something extra,” including my son Jonathan. As many of you may know, our family’s world is a different one today than it was on World Down Syndrome Day one year ago. This past summer, we moved from Georgia to Utah and Jonathan’s world of familiar friends, school, church and neighborhood was not so familiar anymore. In the nine months since we’ve lived in Utah, Jonathan – and the rest of the family – have met new neighbors, joined a new church, met a small circle of new friends and have thankfully been blessed with a great new school.
The school component of the move was the hairiest. We soon learned that Utah was generally less inclusive than Georgia and there were several sleepless nights of – “what have we done?” In Georgia, Jonathan was well-adjusted, academically successful and well-liked by both students and staff. Not that the new school wasn’t accommodating and welcoming. It was just different. And in those early weeks, we weren’t yet sure if different was good, bad or equal.
The differences included pull outs for Jonathan with several other children every morning for extra math and reading instruction with a special education teacher, separate from his mainstream classroom teacher. Jonathan had never been pulled out to a resource room before. He was always supported within the mainstream classroom with a full-time paraprofessional. In his new school, Jonathan still has a para-pro, but for a much shorter part of the day. I was somewhat skeptical at first whether this would be a good situation, but he seems to be rising to the occasion without the help of an extra pair of eyes and ears shadowing him every minute.
Academically, it is hard to argue with success. Jonathan is working at grade level in math right now and just below grade level in reading. It is exciting to see him take pride in his new-found reading skills and to see him read on his own now occasionally for enjoyment, just like the rest of the family. If I had to say what has made a difference for Jonathan at these two schools, it would be high expectations and a culture of inclusion that starts from the top down. Like our previous principal, we have a principal here in Utah who treats Jonathan no differently than any other student. Jonathan is expected to adhere to the school’s creed – SOAR, which stands for Be Safe, Be on time and on task, Accept responsibility and Show respect to yourself, property and others. Despite the two school’s differences, this emphasis on responsibility and respect is quite similar and, in my opinion, creates an atmosphere of academic success for all.
It is also thrilling to see how many of the Utah students and staff are embracing Jonathan socially. I am amazed every morning when I drop him off how many children who aren’t in his classroom go out of their way to say, “Hi Jonathan!” Many teachers and staff members also greet him by name. I am comforted to know that even when big sis Charlotte heads off to middle school, Jonathan will continue on at a school that “has his back.”
Perhaps the greatest indication of how well accepted Jonathan has become here has to do with World Down Syndrome Day. Once a week, every classroom at the school has an allotted library time. This week, in honor of World Down Syndrome Day, the school librarian is using that allotted time to show “Deedah” to every single student. And the real beauty of the situation? I didn’t even have to ask her! She decided she wanted to do this on her own! It is with a grateful heart that I greet this day – grateful for the wonderful support our family has always had in the past, grateful for the incredible support we have in the present, and optimistic for a future filled with many more World Down Syndrome Days – days set aside to appreciate the blessings of that extra chromosome.
Speaking of Deedah, it will be shown at the Herriman Library at 5:15 PM and 6:00 PM on 3.21.12. Rumor is that the stars will be at the showing! We hope you can all make it.