What do you get when you put 250 jumping, shouting elementary-school students in classrooms once reserved for children requiring special education?
"Miracles," answered Lee Glad, principal of Monte Vista School in Farmington. "These kids just care about each other."Two years ago, the Davis School District was experiencing acute growing pains in Farmington. District officials proposed to Glad that his special-education school - for mentally and physically handicapped children - provide additional classrooms for normal students.
"I was excited. I have always wanted more interaction between special-ed and regular students," said Glad.
His belief that the two groups could help each other has been proven accurate.
During recess at Monte Vista one day recently, three dozen or so students were playing football. In the middle of them was an older special-education student. He did not understand all that was happening but, like all children, he just wanted to play. At the next huddle, he was called over to the group, and when they emerged, he had the ball. After he ran for several yards under the guidance of his non-handicapped teammates, he was tagged - with a smile on his face.
Part of the success of Monte Vista's combined program goes to Glad. His office door is always open. He will interrupt a phone call to help a child untie a knotted shoelace or personally find a Band-aid for a skinned elbow.
The parents of special-education students had some concerns about the non-handicapped children coming into the school but, through the work of several committees, their fears were allayed.
The parents were concerned that the special-education students would be shuffled to another school if Monte Vista became too crowded, and they were worried that their children might be teased or tormented. Both of these concerns were viable, said Glad. There had been similar incidents in the past at other schools.
The school solved the problems by limiting the number of regular students who would be allowed to attend and making enrollment optional to the children of all Farmington residents.
The children attend separate classes but have interaction for social events and at other times when teachers believe it will be beneficial.
Many of the regular students use their recess to help their handicapped friends, and some teachers allow students who have finished their assignments to work in the special-education classrooms.
Eight sixth-grade students have been trained to teach early reading skills and language development to the "special" children. Some non-handicapped children spend nearly every free minute in the special-education rooms, while others have little interaction. "But we always have more student volunteers than we can use," said Glad.
One special-education student can't talk and uses sign language. The other children have learned to sign so that they can communicate with him.
"We have one boy who is nearly 18 and very large. He was taught to walk at the school, but he has to practice a lot. One day I saw a little first-grader with her small hand in his, encouraging him as she walked with him down the hall," Glad said.
Last year the sixth grade and the handicapped students went to the state fair together. Because of the bus space, the parents of the handicapped children followed in a car. By the time they were parked and in the fair, the sixth-graders had divided into groups and had taken the special-education students with them to explore the fair.
The mothers were frantic to find their missing children but soon realized they were in good hands. All day kids were zipping past, pushing their friends in wheelchairs.
After the fair, they were asked to write an essay or poem about their experience. Of the 1,870 entries in a statewide contest, the Monte Vista students took first and second in the essay and fourth in the poetry. That is remarkable, Glad said, because there are only 59 students in the sixth grade.
Nina Hill, daughter of Steve and Tauni Hill, and several of her friends became close friends with Jenny, an 18-year-old girl in the special-education program. She could not talk, but that did not stop them from calling her on the phone. When her sister answered, the girls asked for Jenny.
There was a long pause, "But she can't talk," the sister replied. "We know that, just hold the phone to her ear so we can tell her something," Nina said.
"That was the first phone call Jenny had ever had," said Glad.
Jenny repaid that kindness last year when Nina's little brother was killed in a car accident. Jenny was very frail, and Nina would go into her schoolroom and just hold and rock her.
"She loved her for what she was, a human soul," said Tauni Hill. "Because of their association with the children at the school, my family adjusted better to this tragedy," she said. "It was easier for them to let him go because they could see the results of severe head injuries and it was harder for them to feel sorry for themselves when they were with other children who had difficult problems."
Hill explained that her children have become more tolerant of everyone since coming to Monte Vista. Their academic scores might not be any higher, but they are learning to be better people, she believes.
Dallas Knowlton, the son of Brad and Shondell Knowlton, had a difficult time with the decision whether to attend Monte Vista. He had just moved to Farmington and was making new friends. His mother took him to visit Monte Vista several times when only special-education students were enrolled. Finally, after much thought, he asked, "Will they have a wheelchair for me, too?" He was relieved when his mother explained that he would have a regular classroom just like those at the elementary school.
There are about 250 regular students in the school and 50 handicapped students - a 5-1 ratio - so the special education students can't be ignored as they might be in mainstream elementaries. Of the 50 students, 40 of them are in wheelchairs.
Several weeks into the school year, Dallas' mother asked how he liked the new school and inquired about his relationship with the handicapped students. "We don't have any handicapped kids at our school," he said.
"What about all those kids in helmets at lunch?" his older sister, Andrea, asked.
"I thought they were just football players," Dallas said.
In a way, he was very close to the truth, according to Glad. "The students just see a child with handicaps, not a handicapped child. There is a difference," he said.