When Centreville High received national recognition Tuesday for its students' academic achievements — including those with disabilities — Alice Farling wasn't surprised.
"Centreville really does deserve this honor," said Farling, Fairfax County Public Schools assistant superintendent for special services. "Centreville was an inclusive high school long before we had a [School] Board target. [Principal] Pam Latt and the school have been leaders for years."
In 2002, Education Development Center Inc. (EDC) in Newton, Mass., was awarded a three-year research grant by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Its task was to find three high schools where students were performing well socially and academically — and students with disabilities were doing likewise.
"We began a nationwide search in January 2003," said Cindy Mata Aguilar, Good High Schools project director for EDC. Her office wanted to learn the academic opportunities available to all students and what supports students with disabilities were receiving to help them belong and succeed academically.
IN THE END, Centreville was selected as one of three Good High Schools from more than 40 applicants representing 17 states. The others are in Florida and New York. And on Tuesday, Aguilar flew to Virginia to formally recognize Centreville for its innovative practices and to present it with a national Good High Schools banner.
"Students with disabilities drop out of school at twice the rate of non-disabled kids," said Aguilar. "And by the 10th grade, their achievement scores in reading remain at the fifth-grade level."
According to EDC, "When these students are placed in rigorous classes, teachers often lack the assessment tools and knowledge of support practices to help them succeed. Students with disabilities in urban settings are in the greatest need of excellent instruction, but they are the most likely to receive the poorest quality teaching."
But not so at Centreville. In fact, Donna Martinez, whose son Andy, 18, has Down Syndrome and is a rising senior there, nominated the school for consideration by EDC. "He has been included fully, his entire school career," she said Tuesday. Rather than being considered a student with disabilities, she said, he's always been considered a student of Centreville, period.
"I believe barriers shouldn't exist for anyone, and I've been absolutely amazed [at what Centreville's done for him]," continued Martinez. "As we run into glitches, they've come up with creative ways to solve them. Andy has been in academic courses — taking world history, Spanish, piano, reading and math — and he's on the track team doing shotput."
SHE TEACHES special ed at White Oaks Elementary and prefers to describe her son as someone with "intellectual disabilities." Added Martinez: "There is intellect in these students, and Centreville sees that. Andy got his goals met and got the learning that he could gather."
"It's intentionally done and it's inventive," said Aguilar. "Centreville's teachers have caring hearts with winning spirits."
On the nomination form, she said, EDC was impressed with the school's academic achievement — especially students with disabilities. In the 2001-02 school year, 87 percent of Centreville High's general-education students passed English, and 80 percent passed math. At the same time, 50 percent of students with disabilities passed the 11th-grade SOLs in English, and 67 percent passed them in math.
During this past school year, Good Schools project staff visited and studied the three schools selected and collected data to identify the schools' key features that contribute to student success. "We went multiple times to the school, shadowing and interviewing students and teachers and doing a survey of all sophomore students and teachers," said Aguilar. "We did three visits and took a team of four to six researchers, and we were always greeted with welcoming arms."
SHE SAID IT couldn't have been done without the invaluable help of Centreville High's Special Ed Department Chair, Teresa Johnson. "We observed classrooms, and she organized it," said Aguilar. "We observed team-teaching classrooms with both regular and special-ed teachers."
"We saw some excellent stuff going on," she continued. "In science, English, history — some of their teachers go above and beyond. One teacher even created a practice Web site for sophomore world history where kids could practice taking the SOLs. He made up games, tests and questions, and the Virginia Department of Education later modeled some of their work on what they'd done."
What also impressed EDC, said Aguilar, were the "stories from the heart about what lengths the school would go to, to include students with disabilities in the daily life of the school." For example, she said, "The school bent over backward for one boy with Down Syndrome so he was able to participate in a chorus competition at Disneyworld."
And last year, a girl with cerebral palsy managed the girls softball team and traveled with them. But no problem — Johnson would just call ahead to make sure the ballfields and hotels were accessible to her. "And I shadowed a deaf student named Becky and learned how she was supported in the school," said Aguilar. "They have so many different choices at Centreville."
NEXT COMES further study over the summer, "and then we'll see what themes emerge," she said. "We'll write articles and share them and the survey data with the school and will present the information at conferences. The three schools will be models for other schools to follow."
Tuesday, Latt said Centreville's staff has "worked very hard to develop a quality, inclusion environment, and it's wonderful to be recognized by the federal government for this achievement. In my heart and soul, I always think this is the best school in the world, but it's always good to get validated from an outside entity."