Extra-special education: Jowonio school has a staff of 100 to serve the diverse needs of its 160 preschool children. Here, Joy Casey reads to a group inside the Kangaroo Room.MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
“Inclusion is everywhere in this area,” she said. “Syracuse is known nationally for our inclusion programs.”
While public schoolchildren share their classrooms with children of special needs, it wasn’t always like that. Forty-somethings likely remember the “other” students as staying in their own room for most of the schoolday, only mixing in, or mainstreaming, with the general school population for gym, art or music class. Jowonio, which Barnes said means “set free” in Onondaga, never made such distinctions, although its emergence as an inclusionary school was gradual.
“Inclusion is not only part of the concept of the school, but it’s part of our mission, and part of the mission statement,” said school development associate Carol Bryant. “Inclusion is crucial to the whole thing.”
Added Barnes: “I don’t know that we would exist other than that. We are a licensed daycare center, but we wouldn’t be providing just daycare for anybody. The whole purpose of our program is to be inclusive and to be a model for others who want to provide an inclusive education.”
At first, the Jowonio model served middle-school kids whose parents were looking for an alternative to the public schools. “They had been reading about programs that built an education around children’s interests and that focused on active learning, project learning, kids learning and drawing their own conclusions,” Barnes said. “For middle-school kids that’s a good strategy.”
At one point about 30 years ago, Barnes remembered, Jowonio included children from grades kindergarten through eighth, and decided to try an inclusive program. “When people started hearing that there was an alternative for families that had kids that weren’t fitting in the public schools the parents started calling. Jowonio had taken a couple of kids with pretty complicated needs.”
So the school’s board decided to ask New York state if Jowonio could embark on a pilot project involving autistic kids, and the current mission began. But once the state Education Department realized that Jowonio was including all kids in a classroom, not just mainstreaming them, Albany expected public school districts to be able to do the same. And so Jowonio, the inclusive preschool, was born.
But that doesn’t mean that all the children at Jowonio have special needs, whether that be Down syndrome or autism, or require speech, physical or occupational therapy. Of the 160 kids there, only about one-third have special needs. Some are there only for daycare services, while others attend Jowonio as a preschool; daily sessions runs from 8:45 a.m. until 11:15 a.m., 1 p.m., or 2:30 p.m. It operates 180 days a year, like a typical school, with a 30-day session in the summertime. But for the “normal” kids, the education they receive, and the lessons they take away, from Jowonio are vital to their future success.
“We believe that providing what we do for children when they’re very young serves the community for decades to come in a much larger way,” noted Bryant. “The kids leave this school being very supportive, accepting, nonjudgmental, helpful and aware that everyone is different, and they embrace those differences.” Things no doubt get a little rambunctious at Jowonio—a recent visit to Barnes’ office was punctuated by the sounds and wall-bumps of a gym class next door—but only those old-schoolers used to hushed Catholic school hallways seem to mind.
The challenges of such an intense inclusionary setting can actually be a selling point for the nomadic school that first met at Park Central Presbyterian Church, 504 E. Fayette St., and has occupied space on Clarendon Street, Bassett Street, in a Quonset hut on the Syracuse University campus, and at Salt City Center for the Performing Arts’ former home on South Crouse Avenue.
“We work hard to provide support for families,” said Barnes. “Children with special needs have a much more complex life in school than most realize. We learn through our relationships, especially at school, and for parents of typical kids, not only are they getting an opportunity to achieve at Jowonio, but they are learning about all different types of people. There is a self-selection piece to it, I’m sure. Parents come to us in part because they know we have this diverse range of kids, and it’s something they want their children to experience. They want their children to be part of a community that has others that don’t look like them or talk like them. We offer a really good base for kids, who then learn to value differences.”
Kristen Antonacci and her husband came to Jowonio because their 4-year-old son Joey has a developmental speech delay. “We were nervous at the beginning about sending him to school with his limited communication skills,” she said. “Right away, his teachers and speech therapist were able to use sign language and visual cues in the classroom that helped to increase his vocabulary very quickly. They also maintain communication on a regular basis throughout the year to help us learn what is working at school and what we can do at home to help facilitate his speech development.”
Beyond classroom instruction, teachers at Jowonio hold twice-weekly planning sessions and support meetings with therapists. Antonacci herself experienced the efficacy of these meetings. “With the slight behavioral questions that we raised with Joey’s teachers, we were able to come together as a group to come up with ideas for correcting the behavior,” she noted, “which was corrected within days of our meeting and which speaks volumes about how well they know my son and how much they care.”
A Jowonio education isn’t for every child certainly, but everyone should rejoice that such an option exists in the big-little town that is Syracuse. It gives this small city a big-city feel. Hey, again, kinda like The New Times!
In celebration of its 40th anniversary, Jowonio, now settled for good at 3049 E. Genesee St., in a building they purchased in 2002, is holding several special events. First is Friends Flowers & All That Jazz, to be held Wednesday, May 13, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., at the Stickley Audi & Co. Showroom, Towne Center, Fayetteville. Admission is $60 per person, $100 per couple and includes food, music, raffles and a silent auction. For more information, call 445-4010, Ext. 201.
After that, the community is invited to the grand opening of Trike Town, on Wednesday, June 3. “It’s another motor space for our children, but outside,” Barnes said. And on Friday, Oct. 16, at the Holiday Inn, Electronics Parkway, Liverpool, Jowonio hosts its 40th anniversary conference and dinner. For more information on the dinner, and on the school in general, visit www.jowonio.org.