Many Christian parents of children with learning disabilities, mental illness, trauma or developmental disabilities desire for their children to attend a school where they can receive an excellent education in an environment that supports the values the parents seek to instill at home. Our friends from CLC Network help make that desire reality.
Since 1979, CLC Network has delivered education and support services to faith-based and public charter schools, home educators, and churches nationwide. Their services include individual assessment, educational and worship planning, teacher and parent seminars, as well as online courses. CLC Network staff members work closely with your home, school and church community to ensure that those who have disabilities, unique learning challenges, or exceptional academic gifts become vital participants who are challenged to their fullest capabilities.
Barb Newman and Elizabeth Dombrowski from CLC Network have graciously agreed to share their experience with our readers in this miniseries.
Barb has been a special education teacher and consultant for CLC Network for over twenty years. She is the author of “Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities”, “The Easter Book”, “Autism and Your Church”, “Any Questions? – a Guidebook for Inclusive Education”, “Circle of Friends Training Manual”, and “Body Building: Devotions to Celebrate Inclusive Community”. She has written curriculum for Friendship Ministries, was a major contributing author of “Special Needs SMART Pages” for Joni and Friends, co-authored the “G.L.U.E. Training Manual”, and is a frequent national speaker at educational conferences and churches. In addition to writing and speaking, Barb enjoys working in her classroom at Zeeland Christian School.
Elizabeth is the advancement director for CLC Network, formerly known as the Christian Learning Center in Grand Rapids, MI. Prior to joining CLC Net, Elizabeth was with the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.
In this miniseries, Barb and Elizabeth discuss how CLC Network became involved in serving kids with disabilities in Christian schools in their home region of Western Michigan, and the obstacles they face in getting other Christian schools to pursue inclusion.
C4EC: CLC Network is building a well-deserved reputation for excellence in including kids in Christian schools who typically require special education services only found within the public school system. What led CLC Network to spearhead the initiative to serve kids with more complicated educational needs?
CLC Network: As with many initiatives, parents were the ones who started the educational ball rolling. When a Christian day school for children with disabilities closed down in the late 1970s, parents had only one option left – the public school system. These families were already sending their other children to local Christian schools, and they wanted a Christian education for each one of their children. While CLC (Christian Learning Center) truly started as a more self-contained set of rooms for children with Down syndrome, autism, and physical challenges, the rooms were inside a Christian School building. As the trend toward mainstreaming and then inclusion moved forward, the administration of CLC learned more about these initiatives. Inclusive education seemed so much like the picture painted in I Corinthians 12 – one body together in Christ – that the program decentralized into many different Christian schools. Now siblings can attend school together in their own local communities. As the program for children with more significant areas of need developed, so did the opportunities for children with learning differences. Delighted with the concepts of neurodevelopment, and standing firmly on Scripture that shows each one is gifted and each one is important within the body of Christ, schools have been developing programs that support the needs and use the gifts of children who may need support in certain academic areas. CLC Network psychologists help parents and staff to better understand that child’s learning profile and then put together additional school accommodations and supports based on what might best allow the child to be successful.
C4EC: CLC Network’s “Including Isaac” video is going viral and serves as a fabulous example of the benefits that accrue when a Christian school embraces the concept of including kids with disabilities. Most kids who could benefit from inclusion in a Christian school have disabilities less obvious than Isaac’s. What is the range of disabilities that schools served by CLC Network have accommodated? Are there specific disabilities that are nearly always beyond the capacity of a Christian school to serve effectively?
CLC Network: We suggest that schools focus less on the child’s label or disability and instead focus on what it would take to be able to serve that child in the school. As we talk with parents and observe the child, we try to imagine what a day may look like and what supports the child would need. Although not true in every state, in Michigan, many of our students get on-site therapy services through the local public school districts. These are important supports for many of our students. While we have times when the intake team along with the parents have decided we cannot meet the child’s needs, we have been able to include children whose designations range from: severely multiply impaired, cognitively impaired, autism spectrum disorder, physically impaired, speech and language impaired, specific learning disability, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, medically fragile, emotionally impaired, and a combination of these designations. In Isaac’s case, Byron Center Christian brought together a team that helped figure out how to make it possible for him to be part of that school. They still do that to this day.
C4EC: You (and CLC Network) serve as consultants to 58 Christian schools in four states serving kids in need of special education services. Why aren’t there more schools doing what you’re doing in Western Michigan? What is the biggest obstacle you have to overcome in getting the leadership of Christian schools to buy into your vision?
CLC Network: Following this path isn’t always easy. It takes a passion and a belief that this is important, and the faith to take it one day—and one child—at a time. We applaud every school community who decides to take even one small step forward to say “welcome” to kids at all levels of ability and disability, and we believe the entire community will be blessed beyond measure! One of the biggest obstacles is the perception that you need a room, or a building, or an entire fundraising campaign in order to become an inclusive school. That’s not the best way to start. Start by thinking about your school, and your mission. Do you strive to mirror the body of Christ? Are you developing students for Christian service? Is diversity of talents important? Inclusion can be key to all of those goals. No Christian school administrator enjoys turning students away, but we know it happens when a student has special needs. So we encourage leaders to think about what it would really take to say “Yes, you belong here. We need you here.” Your inclusion program won’t look like the schools’ down the street, and it doesn’t need to. Just figure it out for today, for one student. In our experience, the blessings that student brings will be addictive and your community will want to do more.
In Part One of the series, we discussed how CLC Network became involved in serving kids with disabilities in Christian schools in their home region of Western Michigan, and the obstacles they face in getting other Christian schools to pursue inclusion. Today, we’ll hear from Barb and Elizabeth on funding inclusive Christian education, and advice for parents who want their kids with special education needs to attend a Christian school.
C4EC: How do schools find the financial support to afford families an educational experience for their children who qualify for IEPs that is equal to (or better) than that offered by the public schools?
CLC Network: Each school has a unique plan. Some schools build in the needed money by simply making it part of the tuition each family pays. Some schools ask for donations or hold fundraisers that allow for those funds. Some schools have a foundation that keeps a good portion of the expenses funded. Some schools can access limited funds from the public school, depending on the district and needs of the children. The most important thing, however, is allowing the community to understand that this “inclusion” program does not just benefit the children with a disability. An inclusion program is about including everyone, and the benefits are for everyone. Isaac’s presence in that school has cost some money, and Isaac’s presence has benefitted nearly each child in the school. It’s money well spent, schools will agree.
C4EC: What advice would you give to the Christian parent who wants their child with special education needs to attend a faith-based school, but lives in a community where none of the local Christian schools are willing or equipped to meet their needs?
CLC Network: Perhaps the Isaac video is a great place to begin. Taking the administrator or key teacher out for lunch and sharing that video clip might be a great place for discussion. Giving them a copy of Barb’s books… Any Questions or Nuts and Bolts of Inclusive Education may also give them a picture of what it could look like in their school. A call to the Executive Director of CLC Network can also help that school imagine the possibilities. We also invite interested schools and parents to visit one of the schools partnered with CLC Network so they can see it in action in schools of varying size and backgrounds. Don’t recreate the wheel. Let us help! That’s the call God has placed on our organization, and we are eager to walk with Christian schools in this exciting journey. Remember it doesn’t take a huge investment—you and your school don’t have to have all the answers today. You might get a lot of “yes, but” answers in the beginning. If you and your school leaders can keep the big picture in mind, you can find a way to ensure your student is part of the community.
C4EC: CLC Network has developed some extensive resources for Christian schools seeking to better serve kids with learning differences. What resources do you make available for educators in Christian schools? How can they access those resources?
CLC Network: In addition to the books and DVD’s in our catalog, we have a library of professional development videos and an online Goals & Objectives program that can track the success of any student on an alternate learning path. Our eight Teacher Consultants draw on their experiences to provide customized advice to your school and your students. In addition, our four school psychologists provide in-depth evaluations, starting with each students’ gifts and providing a plan for success. We know there isn’t one plan that works for everyone, so we like to talk with you to identify what tools might be best for this point in your journey.
CLC Network: We have several books and resources for schools. The newest one is called Nuts and Bolts of Inclusive Education. This book is the most comprehensive as it walks schools through very specific steps to set up opportunities for children with higher levels of need. If a family comes to the school, and one of the children has Down syndrome, this book would be the guide to use. Beginning with the importance of preparation – who needs it and what to do, moving into planning for the child – with needed forms and supports, and then into the actual day to day components of the program – from report cards to training paraeducators, this book is filled with the practical ideas the schools will need. Each portion of this book is rooted in Biblical principles and invites people to experience this blessing of God called inclusive education. Previous books include an overview of inclusive education called “Any Questions”, ideas to support friendships called “Circle of Friends Manual”, and “The School Welcome Story” which is a tool one can use to write an informational story for a child before entering a new setting. These were all written by Barb.
C4EC: Let’s say we could persuade one of our local Christian schools to partner with CLC Network as consultants in an initiative to serve kids with special education needs. What’s the nature of the service your group can provide to churches outside of your home base in Western Michigan?
CLC Network: We recognize that volunteers are the key to any church-wide effort, so we provide easily-accessible training in book and DVD form. Our G.L.U.E. (Giving, Loving, Understanding, Encouraging) process provides an overarching way for you to think about inclusion in a church setting. We believe so strongly that churches need this encouragement, we are giving away the DVD and Training Manual—four hours of training—to any church interested in putting some oomph behind that “Welcome” sign on the door. Once a church community has made a commitment to persons with disabilities, there are lots of ways to come alongside that person and receive their witness. Our background in education helps churches overcome some of the biggest hurdles to inclusion – how to conduct inclusive Sunday School, youth group, and adult bible study. Depending on your church’s gifts and needs, resources from Friendship Ministries and Joni & Friends can also become important supports to sustain a purposeful inclusion program.
C4EC: One last question…with all of the funding challenges that the typical Christian school faces, why should Christian school administrators make inclusion of kids with learning differences a priority?
CLC Network: There are many reasons, so let me begin with the practical and then end with the spiritual. Practical…I was visiting a school because they did not have an inclusion program and the school felt they were no longer able to meet the needs of some of the children already enrolled. I was doing an observation as part of our intake process, and realized the number of enrollments they were losing. With siblings, 4 children would be leaving this school. For this school, that would have been tuition of about $6,000 per child per year. I asked the administrator if he would like to keep that $24,000 in his school or send it somewhere else. For that money, he chose to hire CLC Network as well as an on-site assistant whose day would be divided among the children needing support. There was even money left over. What schools don’t realize is that inclusion can increase enrollment as families enroll all of their children. When families leave, schools lose money. At the school where I work, we have about 50 children who have more significant needs. Each of these children has 1-3 siblings who are also part of our school. You do the math. Money aside, I believe the most important reason has to do with God’s intended community. I often ask a group of parents “when your children graduate from high school, what do you want them to have learned?” While the discussion often begins with math or reading or government, the conversation quickly turns to character qualities such responsibility, caring, respect, and more. One of the greatest benefits we see for inclusion is that it truly is a program for all. Every student enters into a community of care that allows teachers to highlight relationships and living with one another in ways they could never have achieved without a child like Isaac. Inclusion forms the habits and hearts of each child present. It’s little wonder, however, because as you read Scripture, God clearly shows us these types of communities where “the eye cannot say to the hand ‘I don’t need you’”. Each part is important to the whole. In some ways, excluding the child with the disability handicaps an entire student body.
CLC Network is a nonprofit educational consulting firm helping schools and churches support people at all levels of ability and disability. To contact CLC Network for a consultation, evaluation, or resources, call 616-245-8388 or visit www.clcnetwork.org.