Who's the Slow Learner?

A Chronicle of Inclusion and Exclusion

by Sandra Assimotos McElwee


Book Details

“A feisty, funny, instructive and inspiring book for anyone who has anything to do with education. You don’t have to share Sandra McElwee’s Christian faith to get a kick and a charge out of her ebullient good sense, tenacity and passion for parenting and living.” —Cristina Nehring, Ph.D. New York Times Bestselling Author of A Vindication of Love and Journey to the Edge of the Light

Sean McElwee was born with Down syndrome, and entered his neighborhood school as a general education kindergarten student with the supports, accommodations and modifications he needed to be successful. He was included in all aspects of his elementary school; learned to read, excelled in math, performed in Talent Shows and most of all made many friends. Elementary school was such a wonderful learning and nurturing experience—then the horrors of Secondary school began—and sadly never ended. Struggling to be included where the students were welcoming but the educational staff was ignorant of Inclusive Best Practices and unwilling to learn, Sean survived. High school educators limited his ability to participate by violating his Civil Rights multiple times; denying access to electives, sports and elections. Sean’s mother learned laws she never thought she needed to know, and tried teamwork, diplomacy, and finally became punitive with Compliance and Civil Rights Complaints. Who’s the Slow Learner includes creative examples of accommodations and modifications. Education Law unfolds in their story revealing the hard lesson that while Inclusive Education is the law, you cannot legislate attitudes. This is the first book that chronicles a student with special educational needs from preschool to high school graduation. It is a story of triumphs and successes; losses and failures. Not a “how to” book but the chronicle of “how they did it” as Inclusion pioneers forging the way. Written in the hopes that parents and educators can learn from the achievements and errors made on both sides.


Book Excerpt

New Principal-- Every time we choose hope over despair, acceptance over intolerance, and optimism over negativity, we are doing our part to change the world.—Leeza Gibbons At the end of Sean’s second-grade year, the principal retired. I danced at his retirement party! While he didn’t stand in our way, he certainly didn’t contribute at all to Sean’s success. He had been silently tolerant, unsupportive, and skating his way to retirement. The new principal, Mrs. Easton, was a woman who was extremely fit. She taught Pilates classes on the side. She was beautiful, strong, and very interested in this inclusion model that Sean was pioneering at our school. There were two special day classes at our school first, second, and third grade were in one class, and fourth, fifth, and sixth were in the other. There were 12 students in each of those classes. During third grade, Mrs. Sunshine apologized to me. Seems she had remembered trying to talk me out of inclusion at the end of Sean’s kindergarten IEP when he was transitioning from special education kindergarten to regular education kindergarten. She told me that she had been wrong and was amazed at his progress and at the way his classmates adored him. Mrs. Sunshine and Mrs. Easton teamed up to transition our elementary school into an inclusive school! They met with the parents of the students in the special day classes during their IEP meetings, inviting them to include their children in regular education classes for the following year. They arranged with the district to transfer the two special day classes to another school’s campus for the students who were going to stay segregated in special education. I had encouraged Sean’s teachers the past couple of summers to attend the Inclusion Institute, and neither had attended. The second grade teacher was in Paris during one that summer, and the third grade teacher simply wasn’t interested. I had received a very large bonus check from my company and decided to offer to pay for the fourth-grade teacher to attend. She accepted, and I was thrilled that Mrs. Easton and Mrs. Sunshine also attended! Sean’s tutor was there, and it was a great 2½ days of learning and team building. With everyone educated, fourth grade was shaping up to be a banner year. ---Fourth Grade--- Alone, hearts are one of life’s most fragile things, but together, their passion can accomplish the impossible.—Byrd Baggett Fourth grade was a turning point for our school. Mrs. Easton had met with each family whose students were previously in the segregated special education classes and invited them to have their child fully included in regular education classes! A few parents took her up on the offer (those that didn’t transferred with the special education classes to a neighboring school). Sean had a new friend in his fourth grade class. She shared the classroom aides. He now had somebody that he could mentor in class and that gave him more confidence and built his self-esteem greatly. Fourth grade was a big year in several ways. From kindergarten till third grade there were only 20 students in each class. Starting in fourth grade, there were 32 students! This was the year they learned about California state history too. And California has a very colorful history! On field trips they visited missions and learned about the mission system. They spent a day on the tall ship Pilgrim and learned what it was like to be a swab on a ship. Then the big trip—overnight to our capitol city—Sacramento. I went to chaperone the trip, but Sean stayed with three other boys in their own hotel room. The trip was two nonstop days, including a visit to the capitol and a tour of the train museum. Sutter’s Fort gave a great feeling of what it was like in the early settlements of California. But the best part was going to the American River and panning for gold! There was a demonstration of how to pan for gold, and everybody was given a small vial in case they uncovered any gold to hold their flakes! All of the students talked about what they would purchase with their new found fortunes. Sean panned and panned, and voilà! He actually acquired one tiny flake! I helped him put his flake into the vial, and he was done. He was then totally content to take the rocks from the shoreline and throw them into the water for the rest of the 30 minutes of gold panning . . . He was the only student to leave with a flake of gold. Sean also learned how to play the recorder this year in his music class, and once again participated in the after-school choir and performed in the Christmas and End-of-School performances. I started getting phone calls from friends who were trying to include their children in other schools in our district. I realized that Sean was enjoying a pocket of perfection in his school within a district that was not supporting inclusion overall. One of my five friends whose son had been fully included made the decision to transfer her son to a special education class at another school. They had a new principal too, but he was nothing like our new principal. He made the suggestion that her son discontinue inclusion on the campus. When school started in the fall the students and their parents were looking for “that boy with Down syndrome” and voiced their disappointment to the principal that he wasn’t there anymore. That sent a message to that principal, he had made a mistake, but the damage had already been done. Inclusion died at that school, while it thrived at Sean’s school. One parent’s observation caused me to think. She pointed out, “Every year, Sean gets the BEST teacher in that grade. How do you pull it off?” “I simply have the principal ask the teachers to volunteer to have him. I guess he gets the best teachers because they are the ones who want the challenge, the ones who love teaching, and the ones who know they will become better teachers by educating Sean. You are right, he does get the best teachers, and the fact that they choose Sean is the proof!”


About the Author

Sandra Assimotos McElwee

Sandra Assimotos McElwee is an advocate for unborn babies with Down syndrome and created one of the first websites for parents with a prenatal diagnosis. McElwee contributed to the books, “Gifts” and “You Will Dream New Dreams.” Married twenty-one years to Sean’s father, Rick they enjoy traveling and participating in Sean’s sports activities. A medical sales professional, McElwee’s most important job is being Sean’s mother. Contact: whostheslowlearner@gmail.com

Also by Sandra Assimotos McElwee

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