The Meeting Street School in Providence often has a reputation for being a facility only for children with Individualized Education Programs (IEP), or special needs, but two non-IEP Warwick twins have recently finished their fifth grade and are leaving the only school they’ve ever known.
Since they were 3 months old, Morgan and Allison Rivard of Warwick have been Meeting Street students. They have now finished their time at the Grace School, the all-inclusive K through grade 5 school. This year’s fifth grade class had 11 students, seven of whom did not have special needs.
When looking for which school would be the right fit for her girls, Lisa Rivard, the twins’ mother, noticed that public schools didn’t feel right for her. At Meeting Street, the individualized attention was appealing. She was impressed by the students’ ability to write their own names at a young age and the challenges in the lessons. She enrolled her girls and continued their education there.
The inclusive model also impressed Rivard; she said it makes the children accepting. She said it comes naturally for non-IEP students to offer help to special needs students.
“I like working with people and other people don’t have this chance to,” said Allison. “It makes me feel good because it’s helping them and me.”
Head of School Margaret Knowlton said, “Everyone has something to give and something to learn, it goes both ways.”
Knowlton said the Grace School consists of one-third IEP students and two-thirds non-IEP. Depending on the needs of the students in the classrooms, teachers modify lessons or dedicate one-on-one sessions with the child in need.
“Kids here don’t see the disabilities,” said Knowlton. “Students are compassionate and understanding.”
Walking through the halls of the school, it is easy to see the inclusive model that the school, physicians and teachers embody. There are designated rooms for students to release aggression when need be, color coordinated ramps for students with visual impairments and sensory gymnasiums, including a swimming pool.
Their enrollment numbers vary between 3,000 to 4,000 kids in all programs: Early Intervention, Early Head Start, Early Learning Center, the Grace School, the Carter School and their Outpatient Therapy services.
Diversity seems to stream through the halls at Meeting Street.
“I don’t know who we’re not for,” said Knowlton.
She described how she can tell from walking tours if parents feel comfortable with the setting or feel like their kids wouldn’t thrive there.
“It’s never not comfortable for the child, but if the parent isn’t OK with it, then it won’t work,” she said.
Some friends of Rivard have similar reactions when they hear Morgan and Allison attend an all-inclusive school.
Rivard said, “Some people will ask, ‘What’s wrong with them?’ I tell them there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with people here.”
She said it’s hard for people to understand and said it’s been a learning experience for herself as well. On volunteer day, Rivard likes watching the interactions because she can tell her girls don’t react with any shock. When Rivard’s mom had a stroke, she was placed on a feeding tube. She said the girls weren’t frightened, and she believed this was because of their exposure from such a young age to different disabilities.
“It takes me a little more time than it does for the girls,” said Rivard.
The twins will begin middle school at Providence Country Day School where Knowlton believes the transition will be smooth.
“I tell them that they need to teach other,” about what they have learned on inclusiveness, said Knowlton. She did recognize that it would be a different culture with much less individualized attention.
Rivard admitted the move will be a little scary, but is confident the girls will adjust.
“The girls will be a loss,” said Knowlton. “They’re going to miss their friends.”
Hierarchies between students with and without IEPs are never seen at Meeting Street, said Knowlton.
“They taught me to never be afraid to do something,” said Morgan about IEP students. “They always go for it. They taught me how to be confident.”
Both girls are interning this month to stay connected with friends and the school. Knowlton said three other graduates joined them this summer. Meeting Street’s summer program is only offered for special needs children.
Morgan was assigned 2nd and 3rd grade and has helped with math and typing. Allison has six to eight people in her group where she helps with cutting and gluing in arts and crafts programs.
Since its start in the late 1940s, Meeting Street has strived to create an equal environment for both IEP and non-IEP students. The school’s therapeutic and developmental services are offered to anybody.
“It’s a busy, exciting and collaborative space,” said Knowlton. Therapists communicate with the curriculum director and teachers have a sense of autonomy, she said. “You don’t hear the word ‘can’t.’”
The school is growing each year and a complete middle school is in plans for the future. They are progressive as they push for technology in each of their programs.
There is a big discrepancy in tuition between IEP and non-IEP students. Special needs students tuition is set at $65,000 a year, and $8,700 for non-IEP students. Knowlton said they scholarship 75 to 80 percent of students without IEP and special needs students often receive financial aid as well.
“I am so sad to leave,” said Morgan. She remembered the time when her friend Jake was non-verbal and one day made a “c” sound for chocolate.
“I am happy when my friends make strides,” Morgan said.