Bridges Charter School in D.C. focuses on inclusion of special needs students

August 11, 2011

This is a first in an occasional series about Bridges Public Charter School.

When Amy Aden Dunn’s oldest son, Oliver, turned 3, she began a long search to find the right place for him in the District’s public and private school systems.

Oliver has autism. Dunn, a seasoned special education teacher who worked for 10 years at the Lab School in the District, knew the challenges that families of children with special needs faced and wanted to ensure Oliver had a solid support system.

Oliver attended five schools in five years, but Dunn said she found the perfect fit at Bridges Public Charter School. Oliver was 4 by the time he enrolled and could attend for only one year. Bridges, a preschool and pre-kindergarten program in Northwest, serves children 3 to 5.

“Had I known about Bridges earlier, there’s no question he would have gone there from Day One,” she said. “I was blown away. Of all the schools, Bridges was by far the best experience.”

For Dunn, what separated Bridges from the other schools was how inclusive it is: offering regular and special education in the same classrooms. D.C. law requires all public and public charter schools to operate under the inclusion model. About 25 percent of Bridges’ students have learning disabilities, a higher percentage than other schools, according to the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

At Bridges, inclusion is more than a policy, it is a practice. The school’s mission statement “to provide a free, exemplary early childhood educational program for all preschoolers, with and without special needs,” is unusual. According to Bridges, no other public charter preschool in the District has made this a focus.

“Special-ed is tough, but it’s nothing compared to inclusion,” Dunn said. “The teachers have to pair sensory-seeking children with children who don’t mind sensory seekers, and have to find cooperative roles for every child in the classroom so that they are all contributing. Nobody does this like Bridges. There are no peer schools in this regard.”

Betsy Clyde Santofanti, chairwoman of the Bridges School Board, said the school is structured to meet each child’s needs. School official select faculty members who are specifically interested in educating children with special needs. Class sizes are small so children with sensory issues can feel comfortable in a natural classroom setting.

“That togetherness, that fellowship, is difficult to pull off,” said Santofanti, whose three children attended Bridges. “But it’s also vital for children to be exposed to.”

Bridges was founded in 2005 by three women, including its director, Olivia Smith. It serves 85 students each year and offers a curriculum of individualized and tailored instruction that includes speech, play and physical therapies. In 2007, Bridges was named one of the “best small charities” by the Greater Washington Catalogue for Philanthropy.

Bridges serves students with all levels and types of disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy, hearing and speech impairments, mental retardation and developmental disabilities.

The school’s diversity extends beyond students with special needs. In the 2009-10 school year, 42 percent of the students were English language learners and more than half qualified for the federal free- or reduced-lunch program. Last year, the student population was 42 percent are African American, African and Ethio­pian, 36 percent are Hispanic and 20 percent are white.

Bridges has five inclusion classrooms and a “non-categorical” classroom for children with high-level special needs. Smith said it is important for families to know that inclusion is not itself therapy but rather an educational setting that can be successful, providing the child is ready.

“Too much stimulation can be overwhelming,” she said. “We do it if it is appropriate and if it will be successful for the child.”

Ideally, Smith would like the school to reach a 50-50 ratio of students with needs to those without. That way, she said, the school could serve as a connecting place, or “a bridge, of sorts,” for families of children with varying disabilities to find support and understanding.

By D.C. law, Bridges must enroll students through a blind lottery system, which means it cannot identify students with special needs before enrollment. Smith credits the school’s high ratio of special-needs students to its reputation among parents of those children.

“People send their children here specifically because of how we have designed the school,” she said. “We have a structure they don’t find elsewhere.”

Darren Woodruff, who works on the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said that on a larger scale, Bridges is helping to fill a hole in the city’s public school system.

“Our schools could be doing more to serve students with special needs,” he said. “I would love to see more schools like Bridges with a focus on students with special needs. We could certainly use more of them.”

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