“A pa-, pa-, pallino,’’ Kumail said, drawing a rousing “Good job!” from his teacher. When his teammate threw a larger red ball and his opponent threw a larger blue ball, Cory led a discussion on how the relationships among the balls determined a winner.
“Which one is closer to the pallino?” she asked.
In bocce, as in special education, the discussion is often about relationships.
Five years ago, Montgomery schools began phasing out “learning centers” — which offered small, self-contained classes with a pace tailored to special-needs students — for secondary grades. The new policy followed a national trend of mixing as many of those students as possible into regular classes and adding specialists to the classrooms to keep students with disabilities on track. Before the shift, 7 percent of special education students in Maryland’s largest school system were in learning centers.
Now, just 322 students remain in programs that group them only with others who have special needs. They are the outliers in an increasingly integrated education system, which makes it all the more important for teachers such as Cory to ensure that Kumail and his classmates feel empowered as individuals without feeling isolated.
“In life-skills classes, the greatest gift we can give is high self-esteem,” said George Giuliani, executive director of the National Association of Special Education Teachers. “For those who have skills but are not going off to college, we need to teach them to function independently in the world and feel like they are a part of the world.”
In this class, the students had each other. When they all agreed that the blue ball was nearer to the pallino than the red ball, Marvin Hart IV pumped his fist and called out “Yes!”
His best friend, Brandon Davis, hugged him in celebration.
Kumail lost the round. But he got so wrapped up in the excitement that he hugged them, too.
Their home base in the school year that just ended was a classroom at Blake High in Silver Spring, near the gymnasium and the dance studio. The room was filled with colorful maps of the world and the closets were stuffed with cereal, canned foods and crackers.
Kumail, 17, is shaggy-haired and quick to hug. Marvin, 19, loves to dance. Brandon, 19, always wants to help people, which explains why he went inside that spring day to beckon another student to join in bocce ball.
“Come outside with us,” he said. His voice was deep and quick, almost unintelligible.
“When you speak, you have to slow down,” his teacher told him.
Brandon followed the instructions and repeated the message. His classmate, a non-verbal student in a wheelchair, smiled and rolled himself out.