WEST LINN, Oregon — Danielle Paskins braced herself each day she opened 9-year-old Nate’s black backpack after school.
The daily progress report waiting inside broke down her son's day. How many times did he go to the bathroom? What did he eat for lunch? What activities did he accomplish? How did he interact with the other kids in school?
It was only a matter of time, she worried, that she’d find a note from the teacher saying Nate’s unexpected outbursts disrupted the rest of the kids in the third-grade class. It’s why Paskins didn’t want the Oregon school district to place her non-verbal son, who has Down syndrome and autism, in a typical classroom with students who don't have disabilities.
"What if my child is taking away from the education of all the other kids?” Paskins said. "I was imagining he was at school crying and being hushed all day.”
In this mother's mind, inclusion was the worst option for her son. But by March 2018, the note the mother feared never came. Instead of a progress report, Paskins pulled out a homemade 30-page book one day, with a letter from Nate’s new teacher and laminated drawings from his non-disabled peers in the Stafford Primary School class.
Nate’s classmates wrote and drew pictures about their shared love for dogs, swinging on the playground and drinking shakes — the only way 40-pound Nate can consume food. They highlighted the things they had in common with their new classmate who — until that moment — always stood out as different.
“We are so thankful that you are coming to our class!” wrote Nate’s teacher, Amy Slaughter. "We love the same things you love, and we will love you! You are a blessing to all of us!”
It's a culture embraced by all school employees — from the superintendent to the teaching assistants at the West Linn-Wilsonville School District, about 15 miles south of Portland. It doesn’t matter if the students in this school district have Down syndrome, autism, severe dyslexia or ADHD. They’re all simply part of the crowd.
Before 2012, the district bussed its special education students to segregated, self-contained classrooms — often in schools outside of their own neighborhoods. Today, Nate Paskins and every other special education student in the district spends the majority of the school day learning in a regular classroom around students who don’t have special needs.
Even though every student who has a disability in this district spends time in a regular class, they each receive individualized support as needed — from one-on-one teaching assistants, specialists and therapists to modifications to the curriculum. Nate, who only comprehends basic, one-step commands, has a full-time, one-on-one aide. But his most valuable lessons come from the classroom peers who look after him every school day.
“Students — no matter what their learning style or why they’re receiving special education — they need to feel like they belong with their peers,” said Jennifer Spencer-Iiams, the district’s assistant superintendent. "They need to feel a part of the work. They need to be engaged and challenged. All students.”