What is the difference between inclusion and belonging? What conversations do Christian schools need to have to make all children feel welcome?
Earlier this year, Sara Pot started working with Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS) members as a “Communities of Belonging Liaison.” The position, an 18-month project ending in July 2018, was formed out of conversations with leadership at Christian Horizons, the Christian School Foundation, the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools and the Niagara Association for Christian Education.
In this new role, Pot is working to understand the beauty and tension that exists with welcoming children of exceptional needs in Christian schools. Christian Courier readers know Pot through her Joy & Grace column, where she shares stories about her family. Pot and her husband Ralph have four children; two were born with severe disabilities. Pot attended Christian schools and taught in them; her background and family life bring valuable experience and insight into the role.
How can Christian schools help families who have children with special needs? Some families have experienced hesitation from schools or even a door shut. There are other stories of schools that tried to make it work, Pot says.
“What I’m hearing is the idea of all children belonging and being welcomed, but the expression of it and the followthrough are complicated,” Pot says. So far Pot has been having conversations with families in the Kitchener, Hamilton and Clinton areas. Living in St. Catharines, Pot has been involved with the Niagara Children’s Centre; in time, she hopes to hear from families and schools throughout the province. She wants to encourage churches and schools to ask: “What is community, and how do we define it? What does belonging mean?”
“The hope would be that a school community would connect with other existing communities, agencies and providers, so that particular school and church community could say these kids matter, all kids matter to us,” Pot says.
Hunting for resources
Many Ontario Christian schools charge families extra tuition for their children with special needs. Unfortunately, the increased cost of educating a child with exceptional needs is real, yet asking families to pay a higher fee “contradicts what belonging truly means. Sometimes, there are exceptional needs that exceed the skill set of a school staff, but I would like to see deeper conversations between administrations of schools and school communities about best practices. I believe there are connections in the greater communities that schools can tap into for resources and funding,” Pot says.
Christian schools are seeing an increase of students with special needs, and there is not equitable funding for them, she says. Students with special needs attending independent schools cannot access services through the Ministry of Education, but funding related to medical and health issues is available through the Ministry of Health and support from the province’s Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs). Pot is having faceto-face conversations with people from various sectors, including the Ministry of Education.
“I am of the mindset [that] the more we connect with all these different people, the more possibilities may be available for our children,” she says.
Anna Vos and her husband have five children attending Christian schools in Ontario. Her five-year-old adopted son has Down syndrome.
“There have been many challenges, but we have been so blessed by his addition to our family. Also, it has opened our eyes to the necessity of bringing awareness and fostering a sense of belonging to our communities (school and church) regarding special needs,” Vos says.
All children need to feel they belong in their community, says Vos. “That is why Sara’s job is so vital. I hope that there will be more connections made between teachers and parents in regard to the resources that are available to help make the learning experience and environment the best that it can be,” Vos tells Christian Courier.
The OACS’ 2017 Special Education Conference entitled “Creating Communities of Belonging” will be held Oct. 2 in Oakville. Pot looks forward to hearing from guest Dr. Erik Carter, professor of Special Education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She encourages Christian school administrators, other staff members and families to attend.
“If we really want to own this vision of belonging then we all need to be at the table having the conversation,” she says. “This sits on the shoulders of all of us.”