Inclusion: A Preschool that Truly Cares About Other People’s Children
Published in ChicagoNow, March 25, 2015
Welcoming and including children with special needs has always been part of Cherry Preschool’s mission. But this Evanston preschool community not only talks the talk, it walks the walk. At its annual fundraiser on March 21, parents, teachers, and friends of the school raised their paddles to donate $35,000 to fund next year’s Inclusion Program. That’s right. They donated this money to ensure that other people’s children could attend Cherry Preschool with the support of classroom aides whose salaries they were underwriting.
I am so proud of the school I helped to found and directed prior to retiring. We always called ourselves “the little preschool that could,” and that mantra has stayed with this program as it has matured and grown. Cherry Preschool’s inclusion journey started in 1992 with a little boy with autism whose mother just hoped he could go to school with typically developing peers. That boy is now a young man who is very proud that he has never missed a day of work at his job at a north suburban bank.
Over the years that followed, the Inclusion Program grew. Almost 250 children with identified special needs have found a home at Cherry Preschool. They now comprise 10% of the preschool’s population. And the community embraces them and their families. As Rhonda Cohen, Cherry Preschool’s Child Development and Inclusion Director, explains:
“One of the phrases painted on the Cherry Preschool stairwell wall reads, The way we’re all alike is that we’re all different. Simple yet powerful words. Powerful because what it expresses is that EVERYONE belongs here. You belong whether you can walk or you can’t; whether you can speak or you can’t; whether you can see or hear or you can’t; whether you’re perfectly healthy or you have a medical condition requiring extra care; whether it’s easy for you to learn or you need extra help to do so. And as a parent, you belong regardless of your child’s abilities.”
Julie Vanderpool, parent of children with special needs, shared her journey at the recent fundraiser. People who have a child with special needs in their lives can relate to the challenges Julie’s family faced. Their options for preschool were limited. Private therapeutic schools were unaffordable. With two children needing to get to a dozen therapy sessions a week in addition to school, bringing her younger son to Cherry Preschool meant an hour of driving back and forth on top of all the other demands in her life. And yet, somehow, she made it happen.
Julie also pointed out an added benefit becoming part of the Cherry community. It was a great experience for her child, but it also unexpectedly helped her. When her family was hit by a medical crisis following the birth of her twins, the preschool pitched in to help and support them. She also learned how to advocate for the services her children.
“Our Cherry experience opened my eyes to a new perspective of educating a child with special needs. I learned that educational opportunities are not limited because your child has a disability. Through the monthly support group offered by Cherry for parents with children in the Inclusion Program, I gained the courage to learn about special education law and began advocating for my children.”
The Cherry Preschool community has held steadfast to what it believes. This play-based, independent preschool is above all a caring community for children and their families. Its child-friendly learning environment encourages the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of each child at his or her own rate. Children learn more than pre-kindergarten skills through developmentally appropriate practices. They also learn to appreciate others who are different from them and to see the ways in which all people are the same. Above all, children are respected, accepted, appreciated, and cherished for their unique personalities, cultures, needs, and learning styles. Cherry Preschool strives to include everyone – children with special needs and families with financial needs.
As Marian Wright Edelman said,
“The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children.”