In the last 30 years, more than 1,000 children have come through the doors of the White Plains Children’s Center in Cary – including many with disabilities.
“The concept of inclusion was a very, very new idea 30 years ago,” says Kathleen Carter, chair of the Board of Directors for the center. “Back then, everything was separate.”
In 1982, the minister of education at White Plains United Methodist Church, Hope Morgan Ward, along with other educators and church members, proposed the idea of a preschool operating on the inclusion concept. The congregation loved it.
But Ward wasn’t sure where to start. But luckily, there was another program in the Triangle focusing on the inclusion concept – Learning Together in downtown Raleigh.
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“The director of that center was an advisor to White Plains,” said Carter, noting the program is still going strong after 37 years. “Back then these educators were seeing disabilities and realizing that children with disabilities could be better served if they had role models of children who were developing typically.”
Mark and Marsha Waterman’s daughter, Liz, would become the center’s first child with special needs. In 1983, when Liz started school, she was walking and talking just like all the other kids. But at 18 months, Liz started having trouble standing on her own and lost interest in toys. Her teachers suspected something might be wrong.
“You have this walking, talking child and all of a sudden things start happening,” said Mark Waterman, who still lives in Cary with his daughter, now 31. “That’s the amazing thing about these people. They saw changes that we were kind of seeing, but not really.”
Liz was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome, a rare disorder of the nervous system that leads to developmental reversals in the areas of expressive language and hand use.
Rett’s is often misdiagnosed as autism or cerebral palsy. Fortunately, school administrators recommended Liz for evaluation early. Liz spent several years at UNC’s TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication Handicapped Children) program.
Typically, inclusion classes are comprised of one-third children with special needs and two-thirds children developing typically. “So you have twice the number of role models as you have children with disabilities,” said Carter. “That has served very well in allowing children with disabilities to accept themselves, accept their own environment and everything around them. Little children don’t judge each other.”
However there was some concern that parents would object.
“Many times parents come and they’ve never heard of this concept,” Carter said. “They didn’t know there would be children with disabilities in the classroom. Invariably, they’re more than willing to have their child be in this environment as a role model because they understand when you learn to accept another person regardless of how they look, how they act, what they say at an early age, then you’ve changed the prejudice.”
White Plains preschool teacher Nicole Butters says one of the best parts of her job at the school is observing the progress of all the kids.
“The challenge, as a teacher, is often gauging and appropriately setting the high, but realistic standards for each child,” said Butters. “This way the child is challenged, but successful.”