Tyndale Magazine v4-2

University View: Inclusive Education

University View: Inclusive Education

There is a heart -wrenching story about a Grade 1 public school student who was globally delayed. Sadly, this child would never develop cognitively beyond that of an eight to 14-month-old. The child was not able to communicate verbally, had limited mobility and had a seizure condition. The child would spend days in the hospital and was restricted to eating through a feeding tube. Although the child could have been placed in a well-equipped facility for children with disabilities, the parent desperately wanted the child to be part of the school community – to be included. Professor Rick Cunningham turned this parent’s deepest desire for the child to be accepted and included into a life-changing reality.

Professor Cunningham is the Associate Director of the Bachelor of Education Program and Assistant Professor of Education at Tyndale University College. He has over 30 years of experience as a public educator and school administrator. He is a leader and advocate for inclusion as a model of education. He can tell you many more stories of how the inclusion model for education has changed families’ lives – because it changed his.

Both his sons have dyslexia, which manifests itself in reading and writing – the major areas in which academic assessment is performed. Having known the creativity and abilities of his own children, yet seeing their frustration in school, Professor Cunningham established an organization called LEARNstyle in 2008 with his son DJ Cunningham. LEARNstyle enables and cares for people with learning barriers by giving them the tools to express their abilities in the classroom. In other words, they help students with disabilities to be included in regular classes.

“We understand that it’s very important to establish a relationship with students and that the people delivering the training have strong relational skills.”

LEARNstyle contracts as a service provider for several school boards. It is funded by the Government of Ontario’s Ministry of Education. Their service involves two components: (1) caring for students with disabilities through one-on-one relationships and (2) training them in the use of assistive technologies. “We are very much a relationship-based service,” Professor Cunningham explains. “We understand that it’s very important to establish a relationship with students and that the people delivering the training have strong relational skills.”

There is often a personal stigma that students with learning needs develop about themselves. “For students with a learning disability, getting to use a computer with special programs on it produces a stigma in their mind,” says Professor Cunningham. “It’s a label that says, ‘I’m different’ or ‘I’m dumb.’ That’s why many of the trainers have learning disabilities, so they can create an immediate connection of trust and understanding with students.”

Students are often introduced to assistive technology through social media. This can ease the stigma by showing students that assistive technology can help them be included in social life outside of school. Professor Cunningham began piloting the inclusive education model as a viceprincipal and principal in two separate schools before he had the opportunity, as the principal, to open a new school called Forest Run Public School in Vaughan, Ontario, in 2002. “The inclusion model was definitely the philosophy and practice of the school at the onset,” he says.

When hiring teachers, Professor Cunningham saw an opportunity to help them become more aware of the inclusion model. “In the hiring process, teachers certainly knew the philosophy of the school,” he says. Although, he candidly admits: “We didn’t know what the experience of that would be.”

It turns out that the experience was quite positive. Every student who attended Forest Run Public School, no matter what their level of ability, was part of regular classes and received the care and support they needed to help them express their abilities and become independent. This included students with autism, Down syndrome, severe behavioural needs, Tourette syndrome, bipolar disorder, visual impairments, learning disabilities and others. Remember that touching story about the Grade 1 student who was globally delayed but was nonetheless still included in regular classes? “The response from the students to this child was very warm and positive,” says Professor Cunningham. “There was real enjoyment in having him; he was loved in his community.”

If you worked as a teacher in Forest Run Public School when Professor Cunningham was the principal, you would have often heard this message: “What we do for those with the greatest learning needs is really a measure of what we are as a school.” For Professor Cunningham, that translates into a practical expression of his faith – to take care of the least among us. “That became imbedded in what the vision of the school was. For me, it was a combining of my faith and beliefs in the context of the public school system.”

Inclusive Education at Tyndale

Tyndale has been working on implementing inclusive education practices for the undergraduate and seminary students. An educational psychologist has been brought in to assess all students with special needs, such as learning or physical needs. The psychologist will assist each student and equip them with the individualized support and tools he or she needs to be successful. The Centre for Academic Excellence has been established, which includes the Writing Centre and a new Academic Tutoring Centre for undergraduate students. The Academic Tutoring Centre will support students in learning how to master course material and how to study more effectively. Tyndale is also adopting different technologies, such as the Read&Write Gold software, which is available to all students as a study tool to help them with text to speech, highlighting, note-taking, homilies and much more.