ELIZABETH A. CONKEY
ARLINGTON -- Walking through the halls of Fisher Elementary School, one immediately notices a sense of community.
Principal Deanne Lacoste knows the names, first and last, of all her students; janitors stop to help tie the shoes of little ones; and the mutual respect and admiration between kids and teachers is practically tangible.
As if the small school was not already sufficiently unique, students and faculty alike have begun incorporating sign language into their everyday communication in an effort to make the five deaf and hard of hearing students feel included and welcome.
Rachel Boisvert, known to students as, "Mrs. B," is the district's deaf and hard of hearing specialist and is also a special education teacher at Fisher Elementary.
She works very closely with the five deaf or hard of hearing children at Fisher, as well as with the four remaining students with similar disabilities in the middle and high school.
She noted that because of Vermont's inclusion mainstream model, teachers, herself included, aim to ensure that students with disabilities feel completely comfortable in their classrooms among students who are without disabilities.
This year marks Boisvert's sixth year in the district, having implemented the deaf and hard of hearing program in 2008.
She said if the special education and hard of hearing program was not incorporated into the schools' curriculums, that students with disabilities would have to be bused to another school capable of addressing their needs.
"If they were sent somewhere else to get those services, they would be out of their school, out of their community," Boisvert said. "We're so glad that we can have a personal relationship with our students and also help them to stay here, where they belong."
Boisvert explained that Fisher Elementary's students with special needs remain and will continue to remain 100 percent part of conventional classrooms and of the Fisher community.
"There's no separation," she said. "Everyone in this building signs to some extent, janitors included. It's wonderful."
Boisvert's Teaching Assistant Bridget O'Neil-Hopkins has only been teaching at Fisher since August, but said she has been blown away by the school's sense of community and inclusion thus far.
"I've been very impressed. I love how these students (with disabilities) are part of the classroom and how they're always included," she said. "I've been in schools where that hasn't been the case, so it's great to see."
Boisvert said that last week, Fisher students attended a concert put on by the Manchester Chamber Orchestra.
She noted that the music was enjoyed by all, but especially by the deaf and hard of hearing students.
"They sat right in front and felt the pews vibrate with the music," she said. "It was such a neat experience."
Three fifth-grade students who attended the concert, two of whom are deaf or hard of hearing, and one of whom has Down syndrome but signs fluently, could be seen reenacting the concert Tuesday morning, one pretending to be the conductor, while the other two pretended to play the piano and violin.
"They really had such a great time," Boisvert said. "It was pretty fantastic."
A faculty member to whom Boisvert attributes much of the school's success in its inclusion efforts is fifth-grade teacher Jeremy Pratico.
This year marks Pratico's tenth year teaching at Fisher, but this year is the first that he has had deaf or hard of hearing students in his classroom. The jovial Pratico, so obviously loved by his students, says he loves what he does and is excited about this year, which he is calling a "learning experience" for himself, as well as his students.
"Having the three deaf and hard of hearing students in my class has really brought a new perspective," he said, noting that he has learned a bit of sign language already and attempts to learn more every day.
Pratico explained that "back in the day," he was at times unsure of how to act around those with special needs or those who were deaf or hard of hearing. He said that in his classroom, and the rest of the school as well, those differences do not matter.
"We're all equals. The students with special needs are treated no differently here than anywhere else. It's great, makes me happy."
Pratico also spoke to his attempts at learning sign language and the positive differences he has already noticed among his students who are deaf or hard of hearing.
"Even though our communication is hindered, we communicate perfectly," he said. "They (the students in his class with special needs) feel comfortable when we make the effort to communicate with them. They're doing so well because they don't feel different."
Contact Elizabeth A. Conkey at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @bethconkey.