Zoe and younger sister Lily thrived in their Weekday Education classes while parents Brad and Cheraton worked. The Baptist Children’s Homes’ (BCH) program in Thomasville was perfect for the preschool-age siblings, however, it was not an option for the girls’ infant sister, Rosie.
Rosie was born with cerebral palsy. There was no place around the family’s hometown that provided the care and attention Brad and Cheraton’s youngest daughter needed.
“When you have a child with cerebral palsy, she can often get sick,” explains Brooke Child, the director of Weekday Education and childhood friend of Brad. “Being in a class with another child who comes down with something as simple as a runny nose could really hurt her.”
For the first couple of years, Brad stayed home with Rosie while Cheraton continued her career. Then in 2017, when she turned two and a half and was stronger, Weekday Education worked with the family so Rosie could begin attending their toddler program. It was a need met and the precursor to a bigger dream––an inclusion class customized to meet the specific needs of each intellectually and/or developmentally disabled child.
“Little did we know that meeting Rosie’s need would become the stepping stone,” shares Child.
At this time, Child was Weekday Education’s assistant director and was participating in BCH University (BCHU). The internal leadership and talent development program, whose participants come from BCH’s varied, statewide programs, covers the core areas related to the overall ministry. The experience helped prepare Child for the role of director when she was tapped in March 2019.
“I thought the whole concept of BCHU was wonderful because it was the first time I was involved with BCH’s other ministries,” she shares. “It was eye opening to see how it takes all of us to make the organization run well.”
One specific BCHU assignment, focusing on the topic of strategic planning, saw the curriculum intersect with the dream of beginning an inclusion class. Keith Henry, BCH’s chief operating officer and class instructor, directed participants to partner and conceptualize a new BCH service. Child partnered with Blake Ragsdale, BCH director of communications, and the team developed the plan for a Weekday Education special needs class.
“As soon as we finished presenting the idea to the group, Keith started asking questions,” Child recalls. It was clear he was interested. By the end of class, Henry gave Child the green light to further develop the idea.
She began her research by reaching out to another childhood friend, Jamie Nance with the Children’s Developmental Services Agency (CDSA) in Winston-Salem. Nance and other CDSA therapists regularly work with children attending BCH’s Weekday Education program.
CDSA in Winston-Salem is one of sixteen statewide early childhood intervention agencies that are a part of the North Carolina Division of Public Health. The agencies work alongside providers, such as Weekday Education, to serve children with special needs.
Through Nance’s expertise and an expanded relationship with the CDSA, the model for Weekday Education’s first inclusion class began to take shape. It would involve creating a classroom structure comprised of one lead teacher, an assistant teacher, and no more than five children. However, not all five students would be intellectually and/or developmentally disabled. Three of the students are “typically developing” students or, very simply, children who do not have a special needs diagnosis. According to Child, this is vital to the mission of helping the students advance in their development and achieve goals.
“Children are sponges and learn from their environment and friends,” Child explains. “A teacher can show a child how to do something, but if a child sees a peer doing the task, they understand much easier.”
The inaugural inclusion class began in August 2019. Child called on Stephanie Stewart to be the lead teacher. Stewart has served for 11 years and is the parent of a special needs daughter. Child and Stewart had dreamt of an inclusion class for years and Stewart’s desire was to be the teacher.
“This is a class where we can adapt to meet the child’s needs, and our partnership with CDSA helps meet those needs,” Stewart says. “Through the equipment and resources they provide, we’ve been able to help a child who needed a feeding tube, and the CDSA provided a special chair for another child.”
The CDSA develops an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) for each child and his or her family. The group shares the plan with Weekday Education staff to see exactly what will be required to meet that child’s specific needs. The plan is used to determine the goals for each child and how best to accomplish them.
“I had a little boy who wasn’t mobile or playing with things,” Stewart says. “Now he’s taking steps by himself and feeding himself with a spoon. He learned to put things together and take them apart by watching a more developmentally advanced classmate modeling how to do it. In some ways, the other children are teachers, too.”
The three typically developing children are selected for the inclusion class with the support of their families.
“It’s amazing to see the empathy our typically developing children have for their classmates,” Child says smiling. “They see one of their friends having a bad day and they do what they can to make it better.”
Today, Weekday Education’s efforts in providing instruction and care for special needs children have grown––there are now three inclusion classes. Even in the midst of the pandemic, the need has been great, and Child asserts the rewards have been even greater.
“It’s incredible hearing therapists talk to other therapists about the program and the feedback we receive from them,” Child says. “Most of all, it’s about seeing a child walk who nobody thought could. To see a one-year-old with severe social anxiety come running into the center because she’s happy to be here––that’s what it’s all about.”
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Article is written by Blake Ragsdale, BCH Director of Communications