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When Lyndsey Hansen and her husband learned their daughter Andraya’s preschool class in Longview wanted to group her with students with special needs, they were torn about what to do.

Hansen said her husband was worried Andraya might pick up on the behaviors or outbursts of her peers. Hansen, though, thought the class could give their daughter the chance to “really understand the world as a whole.”

“We had some discussions about it and he agreed to try it out. But he put a stipulation that if she had behavior issues afterwards, then we would pull her from the class,” Hansen said.

But after realizing the classroom’s diversity “doesn’t take away from the class, it only adds to it,” the couple now hopes to enroll their youngest daughter, Ariana, in the same classroom next year, Hansen said.

“When (Andraya) started … she didn’t even realize some kids are autistic and some kids have special needs. They are just all kids, and they all played together,” Hansen said. “As she’s gotten older, she understands some people are slower to learn things, and some people have difficulty expressing themselves. Instead of picking up on those behaviors, she has learned how to help those people and how to have more patience with those people. It’s really been an awesome experience for her to work in real-world situations.”

The Hansens are one of 16 families participating in the Partnership Inclusion Classroom program at the Broadway Learning Center in Longview. The preschool program for 3- to 5-year-olds operates as a collaboration between the Longview School District and the Lower Columbia College Head Start/Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) preschool. (Head Start and ECEAP are federally and state-funded programs, respectively, that provide free preschool and support services to low-income families.)

As an inclusion classroom, the program combines about six students with special needs from the Longview district with about 10 “peer models” from Head Start/ECEAP. All the students play and learn together under the same curriculum.

Ashtan Williams, whose two sons attended preschool in the Broadway inclusion classroom, said it’s a very different model from what she experienced growing up.

“When I was in school, they had special education and those kids went into a separate space or portable classroom,” Williams said. But the inclusion method is better because “that’s how the world works,” she said.

“It’s conditioning these kids and the people in the room — volunteers, teachers and parents alike — to be able to understand things like autism, ADHD, ADD and communication issues,” Williams said. “That’s the greatest thing. How many times in your daily week do you have a misunderstanding with another adult and you have to work things out?”

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Classrooms like this started becoming popular in the 1990s when new and revised federal laws pushed school districts to include students with physical and developmental disabilities in the general classroom, according to Bright Hub Education, an online resource for teachers, parents and students.

Since then, research on educational inclusion has found that inclusion classrooms improve academic performance and social adjustment for students with disabilities. Other studies suggest the general population of students benefit in similar ways.

“Research has shown us for multiple decades that inclusion models, where a special education teacher collaborates with the general education teacher to provide accommodations inside a general education classroom, benefit all children in immense ways, including academic, language skills and social/emotional health,” said Megan Shea-Bates, Broadway principal.

Hansen said she’s seen these benefits first-hand with Andraya.

“I thought she would be more of a help for others, but as I step back and look at it from a different perspective, she has had so much opportunity to grow into a kind, compassionate friend,” Hansen said, adding that academically, “her learning is above where it should be, so it hasn’t stunted any of that.”

In Longview, the inclusion classroom runs like any other Head Start preschool class, said Julie McReary, Head Start site manager at Broadway. The only difference is that the inclusion class has two lead teachers instead of one, and several teachers aides to help support the varied needs of all the students in the group.

“It’s really become the gem of our program,” McReary said.

Right now, the Partnership Inclusion Classroom is the only one of its kind in Longview. Principal Shea-Bates said the nearest program she knows of like this is in Clark County — and it just started this year.

School officials in Longview are hoping to expand the program here to include another classroom, if possible. It’s a mission both Williams and Hansen support.

“I think you will be hard pressed to find anyone who has a bad thing to say about this class,” Williams said, adding that “they are preparing them for life, not just kindergarten.”

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