Many Christian parents of children with learning disabilities, mental illness, trauma or developmental disabilities desire for their children to attend a school where they can receive an excellent education in an environment that supports the values the parents seek to instill at home. Our friends from CLC Network help make that desire reality.
Since 1979, CLC Network has delivered education and support services to faith-based and public charter schools, home educators, and churches nationwide. Their services include individual assessment, educational and worship planning, teacher and parent seminars, as well as online courses. CLC Network staff members work closely with your home, school and church community to ensure that those who have disabilities, unique learning challenges, or exceptional academic gifts become vital participants who are challenged to their fullest capabilities.
Barb Newman and Elizabeth Dombrowski from CLC Network have graciously agreed to share their experience with our readers in this miniseries.
Barb has been a special education teacher and consultant for CLC Network for over twenty years. She is the author of “Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities”, “The Easter Book”, “Autism and Your Church”, “Any Questions? – a Guidebook for Inclusive Education”, “Circle of Friends Training Manual”, and “Body Building: Devotions to Celebrate Inclusive Community”. She has written curriculum for Friendship Ministries, was a major contributing author of “Special Needs SMART Pages” for Joni and Friends, co-authored the “G.L.U.E. Training Manual”, and is a frequent national speaker at educational conferences and churches. In addition to writing and speaking, Barb enjoys working in her classroom at Zeeland Christian School.
Elizabeth is the advancement director for CLC Network, formerly known as the Christian Learning Center in Grand Rapids, MI. Prior to joining CLC Net, Elizabeth was with the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.
Today, Barb and Elizabeth discuss how CLC Network became involved in serving kids with disabilities in Christian schools in their home region of Western Michigan, and the obstacles they face in getting other Christian schools to pursue inclusion.
C4EC: CLC Network is building a well-deserved reputation for excellence in including kids in Christian schools who typically require special education services only found within the public school system. What led CLC Network to spearhead the initiative to serve kids with more complicated educational needs?
CLC Network: As with many initiatives, parents were the ones who started the educational ball rolling. When a Christian day school for children with disabilities closed down in the late 1970s, parents had only one option left – the public school system. These families were already sending their other children to local Christian schools, and they wanted a Christian education for each one of their children. While CLC (Christian Learning Center) truly started as a more self-contained set of rooms for children with Down syndrome, autism, and physical challenges, the rooms were inside a Christian School building. As the trend toward mainstreaming and then inclusion moved forward, the administration of CLC learned more about these initiatives. Inclusive education seemed so much like the picture painted in I Corinthians 12 – one body together in Christ – that the program decentralized into many different Christian schools. Now siblings can attend school together in their own local communities. As the program for children with more significant areas of need developed, so did the opportunities for children with learning differences. Delighted with the concepts of neurodevelopment, and standing firmly on Scripture that shows each one is gifted and each one is important within the body of Christ, schools have been developing programs that support the needs and use the gifts of children who may need support in certain academic areas. CLC Network psychologists help parents and staff to better understand that child’s learning profile and then put together additional school accommodations and supports based on what might best allow the child to be successful.
C4EC: CLC Network’s “Including Isaac” video is going viral and serves as a fabulous example of the benefits that accrue when a Christian school embraces the concept of including kids with disabilities. Most kids who could benefit from inclusion in a Christian school have disabilities less obvious than Isaac’s. What is the range of disabilities that schools served by CLC Network have accommodated? Are there specific disabilities that are nearly always beyond the capacity of a Christian school to serve effectively?
CLC Network: We suggest that schools focus less on the child’s label or disability and instead focus on what it would take to be able to serve that child in the school. As we talk with parents and observe the child, we try to imagine what a day may look like and what supports the child would need. Although not true in every state, in Michigan, many of our students get on-site therapy services through the local public school districts. These are important supports for many of our students. While we have times when the intake team along with the parents have decided we cannot meet the child’s needs, we have been able to include children whose designations range from: severely multiply impaired, cognitively impaired, autism spectrum disorder, physically impaired, speech and language impaired, specific learning disability, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, medically fragile, emotionally impaired, and a combination of these designations. In Isaac’s case, Byron Center Christian brought together a team that helped figure out how to make it possible for him to be part of that school. They still do that to this day.
C4EC: You (and CLC Network) serve as consultants to 58 Christian schools in four states serving kids in need of special education services. Why aren’t there more schools doing what you’re doing in Western Michigan? What is the biggest obstacle you have to overcome in getting the leadership of Christian schools to buy into your vision?
CLC Network: Following this path isn’t always easy. It takes a passion and a belief that this is important, and the faith to take it one day—and one child—at a time. We applaud every school community who decides to take even one small step forward to say “welcome” to kids at all levels of ability and disability, and we believe the entire community will be blessed beyond measure! One of the biggest obstacles is the perception that you need a room, or a building, or an entire fundraising campaign in order to become an inclusive school. That’s not the best way to start. Start by thinking about your school, and your mission. Do you strive to mirror the body of Christ? Are you developing students for Christian service? Is diversity of talents important? Inclusion can be key to all of those goals. No Christian school administrator enjoys turning students away, but we know it happens when a student has special needs. So we encourage leaders to think about what it would really take to say “Yes, you belong here. We need you here.” Your inclusion program won’t look like the schools’ down the street, and it doesn’t need to. Just figure it out for today, for one student. In our experience, the blessings that student brings will be addictive and your community will want to do more.
Next: Paying for an inclusive Christian education, and advice for parents who want their kids with special education needs to attend a Christian school.
CLC Network is a nonprofit educational consulting firm helping schools and churches support people at all levels of ability and disability. To contact CLC Network for a consultation, evaluation, or resources, call 616-245-8388 or visit www.clcnetwork.org.