Upon first meeting Dr. William Henderson, the principal at the Patrick O'Hearn Elementary School, it is not immediately apparent that he is blind. When you enter the room, he greets you. When you speak to him, he makes direct eye contact. When visitors ask for directions, he immediately points them to the right area.
And, in what must come as a disappointment to some students at the Dorchester Avenue schoolhouse, Henderson is quick to spot mischief, catching kids stealthily loitering in the hall and sending them gently on their way.
Aside from his white cane, which he uses for guidance, you might not even realize he cannot see you.
For the past 20 years, Dr. Henderson has been a living example to thousands of students that if you work hard, there are no limits to what you can achieve. Under his leadership, the O'Hearn has risen to national prominence for its successful transformation into a full inclusion school. Disabled and non-disabled students all learn together in the same classroom and from the same curriculum. After thirty-three years as an educator, Henderson will retire at the end of the current school year at the age of 59.
Dr. Carol Johnson, Superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, notes that Henderson has integrated inclusion into the O'Hearn so well that "other faculty have gone to his building to learn from him and try to replicate and repeat what he's done at the school."
"He's going to be very, very hard to replace," said Johnson. "He's a one of a kind and one of the best educators I've had the opportunity to work with."
Early in his life, Henderson was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative condition that deteriorates vision until it is completely lost. In his 20s, a retina specialist informed him that his vision was getting progressively worse and it would likely be totally gone within ten years. His doctor encouraged him to leave his teaching profession before he was completely blind. Instead, Henderson enrolled at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he earned his doctorate degree in Educational Leadership.
Henderson's core belief is that "all our students are talented...some of our most advanced academic students are students with cerebral palsy, blindness, and autism."
There are no lowered expectations at the O'Hearn and as a result there are no lowered results, either. Though accommodations are made so that all students can learn the same material, from Dr. Henderson's perspective, the real secret to success is "...to work hard. Effort is the key."
Marchelle Raynor, 62, Vice Chair Person of the Boston School Committee, has known Dr. Henderson for ten years.
"He's been able to really encourage not only staff but encourage families to not give up on their students," said Raynor. "It was the chemistry of it...he's really an encouraging and supporting person so when someone like that asks you to do something you're much more inclined to do it. So that they'll know you're invested in your child."
Mark Culliton, 44, Chief Executive Officer at the Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses and father of two children at the school, has been impressed by Henderson's results.
"Dr. Henderson is a spectacular leader with an actionable commitment to inclusion that created a great school for all students. I feel incredibly fortunate that my children had the opportunity to be part of the community he led," said Culliton.
During his tenure, reading levels at the school rose from district lows partly due to parents and volunteers from the general community infusing reading into the culture of the school. Susan Fenton, a parent of three children at the school, said that the partnership between the school and home has been key.
"The first week you get there we have a school wide meeting and he says parents should be involved," said Fenton. "He knows every kid in the school by name and what they're all about in the school and he can tell by their voices and he can tell by parents' voices who's there. And for a gentleman who's blind, that's amazing."
"[Henderson] promotes leadership capacity in the people that he engages with. You get that sense that he shares the ownership of making the school great and because of that everyone else is invested in making it great," agrees Dr. Johnson.
The praise for Henderson does not come solely from parents and administrators. The Milken Family Foundation acknowledged Henderson's skills as an educator with a coveted Educator award, which Henderson cites as validation of himself but even more so the talent and hard work of the students, faculty, and parents involved with the O'Hearn.
When Dr. Henderson began to lose his vision he reached out to support groups, family members, and friends to help him.
"One of the things that going blind has taught me is that the idea one person can do it is a myth," Henderson said. "Blindness made me realize that quicker and made me determined to be as competent as I could myself but to be prepared and willing to network with others to get better."
Henderson has yet to finalize his plans for his retirement but he knows he'll be actively kayaking. But he cannot do it alone and admits he'll rely on kayaking groups to help him maneuver the waters. That willingness to help and to be helped is passed on to the children and faculty at his school, where everyone is expected to take on a role helping others.
"I feel blessed and privileged to have been a principal in the Boston Public Schools and to have worked at the O'Hearn and I'm going to be continue to be involved in education and inclusion. Yes, we can but it's going to take some work. Got to put the effort in."