There's water — and giggles —everywhere in a classroom at preschool in Minnetonka.
A small class of 10 children is playing with buckets of water, every one of the kids, splashing with delight. Despite the rubber smocks everyone is wearing, all involved need a change of clothes by the end of the activity—even the four teachers.
By all accounts, this is as typical a preschool class as one could find. But what may not be as typical, is that three of these 10 preschoolers are children with special needs.
"We see greater strides with children when they are placed in an inclusive setting because they are motivated" by their fellow students' progress, says Maureen Walsh, St. David's Center Director of Community Relations & Development.
St. David's has around 300 students in their early childhood education program and about 70 of those kids are part of a program that combines children with special needs together with children of typical needs, into one classroom.
“With inclusion," Walsh adds, "their progress is at a trajectory that is faster moving and gets them to build skills that would take longer if they didn’t have peers along side them.”
Stephanie Childress, whose three-year-old son Sandon attends St. David's, is a strong believer in this inclusion model.
"He loves going to school and that makes me feel so much more comfortable leaving him," she says.
In most respects, Sandon is the most typical 3-year-old of the (soggy) bunch: he loves Legos, books and puzzles. But Sandon also has Down Syndrome, a chromosome abnormality that can translate to an array of health and developmental challenges for those living with it.
As a work-from-home mom, Childress didn't feel that she could provide her son with the kind of stimulation he needed. That’s when she enrolled Sandon in the inclusion preschool program at St. David’s.
"He was curious and bored," she explains. "He’s social, he needs socialization."
Despite some early jitters, Childress says that St. David's preschool has done wonders for her son. She even credits the inclusion model with helping Sandon walk much sooner than he might have otherwise. And as a bonus, his mom says, Sandon also loves the program.
"He’s got a little crush on Janna," Childress says, referring to the head of the school's Early Childhood Special Needs Services program, Janna Rasmussen. "Sandon is an affectionate guy. They know he needs hugs and kisses and he gets that here. He loves it."
According to school administrators, the inclusion model is also a benefit to the children in the class who are of typical needs, because it fosters a spirit of tolerance and respect for others.
And it’s that spirit that Childress hopes all the kids in the class will take with them into elementary school. She—like the typical mother she is—worries about how kids will treat Sandon as they get older.
“I worry about him being teased, when he's not here," she says. "I would like him to be here as long as he can, to go to Kindergarten here.”
In the meantime though, Sandon's biggest worry seems to be getting enough goldfish crackers to eat. Childress says he's discovering his independence right now, and refuses to eat anything but the cheesy, golden delights—no matter what meal it is.
“He just loves them!” she jokes.