Henderson School begins its move to K-12 model

The former Woodrow Wilson School on Croftland Avenue in Dorchester will house upper grades of the Henderson Inclusion School.

During the fall the Dr. William W. Henderson Inclusion School has begun a series of changes as part of a five-year restructuring plan that will expand it to a full pre-K-12 school, open up more than 400 additional seats, and, eventually, see the relocation of the majority of its grades to a new building on Croftland Avenue.

The school, well-known for its “full inclusion” model in which students with disabilities are educated in the same classrooms with their non-disabled peers, comprises what was formerly known as the Dr. William W. Henderson Inclusion Elementary School and the Harbor Pilot Middle and High Schools. Upon completion of the plan, the school will be the city’s first full inclusion single-pathway school from pre-K to twelfth grade.

The elementary school has been full inclusion since 1989, when principal Dr. William Henderson guided what was then the Patrick O’Hearn School to its new teaching model. The change came as a welcome relief to parents of students with disabilities who were seeking a place that could meet their child’s specific needs while allowing them to be socially integrated into the broader school community. The O’Hearn School was renamed in 2009 in honor of Henderson upon his retirement.

A “pathway” for students from the Henderson to the former Harbor school has existed for almost ten years. Under this arrangement, parents from the Henderson elementary school who selected the Harbor as their first choice during the middle school selection process would have a guaranteed seat there. The Harbor has been a full inclusion school for several years, making it a good choice for many Henderson parents.

Under an Innovation Plan authored by principals Patricia Lampron, Nadia Cyprien, and Isabel DePina , and approved by the Boston School Committee in December 2013, the so-called “pathway partnership” has now been solidified by combining the Henderson elementary and Harbor middle and high schools into one entity: The Dr. William W. Henderson K-12 Inclusion School.

The official combination of the two schools is a result of years of advocacy from parents seeking a more permanent solution for their children’s education, says Henderson parent and chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SpedPac) Carolyn Kain.
“We think it’s a much better model to have the school be as one rather than separate schools combined, and to bring together the culture, the climate, and the community so that all of the children’s needs are met,” said Kain. “Because we know from research that children with and without disabilities perform better in an inclusion setting than they do in different settings.”

Estimating that she has been pushing for the school to expand to K-12 for five or six years, Kain added, “Quite frankly it’s a shame that this didn’t happen in the past, but it’s obviously positive that it’s happening now.”

The Innovation Plan also detailed the process by which the newly formed school will undergo a relocation process and expand its grade offerings.

As of September, the former Harbor School has been at a new location at 18 Croftland Ave. on Codman Hill; in turn, the school that previously occupied the building, Dorchester Academy, has moved into 11 Charles St. in Fields Corner, where the Harbor School was located. (Those with a longer-term memory will recognize the Croftland Avenue location as the former Woodrow Wilson Middle School building and the Charles Street location as the former Grover Cleveland Middle School building. Today, Dorchester Academy shares the space on Charles Street with another school, Community Academy of Science and Health, or CASH).

The switch has solved a problem of mismatched enrollment numbers, Lampron explains. “Since Dorchester Academy had a lower enrollment than we did, one of the [ideas] we proposed was for the Harbor to switch buildings with them…We knew that we needed more space,” she said.

The need for more space arises from the Henderson’s plan to expand its grade range over the course of several years until it is a full pre-K to 12th-grade school. The former Harbor school added 9th and 10th grades several years ago in an effort to expand full inclusion options for its students. After reaching up to the 10th grade, however, the school ran out of space. Now, in its new Croftland Avenue building, the school goes up to the 11th grade. The plan is to add a twelfth grade next year.

At the same time, the Henderson will gradually relocate some of its lower grades from its other location at 1669 Dorchester Ave. to the Croftland Avenue campus until the Dorchester Avenue campus contains only grades K-0 to first grade, with three classrooms of each grade from K2 to first grade.

By school year 2023, the entire school will have added more than 400 additional seats – a particularly pressing need, given its waiting list of more than 700 students.

The school also plans to enhance its offerings as it expands and scales up. Principal DePina emphasizes its plan to “offer choices and internships to students as they matriculate from the middle to the high school [and] get students who will be with us until they are 22 [due to more severe disabilities] ready [and] out in the community as well.”

The emphasis on internships is especially important, says former principal and school namesake William Henderson. “Good inclusive schools have to be more creative, more innovative, [and] more flexible,” said Henderson. “Internships in the Boston area would be tremendously exciting for kids with and without disabilities.”

The process of writing the Innovation Plan started two summers ago with input from families, staff ,and community partners, said DePina. Lampron said the plan was approved by a two-thirds vote among teachers at both schools. Staff members who did not like the plan were given the option of transferring to another school within the Boston Public Schools. Lampron said that only one teacher from the elementary school took the offer.

Although the Henderson has now had high school students for several years, including many who have been accustomed to a full-inclusion model since their elementary years, the full implementation of the Innovation Plan will mark new ground for the Henderson and the Boston Public School District at large. “There’s no model in Boston and very few in Massachusetts” for such a wide age range of “full inclusion which involves students with significant disabilities,” said DePina. But, she emphasizes, “our teachers are very hard-working and they’re problem solvers. We definitely don’t have everything figured out, but I think we have all the right people at the table trying to figure it out.”

William Henderson adds that another challenge that full inclusion schools face is the issue of attrition, particularly as students reach into the upper grades. He explains that during his time as principal, staff had to think creatively about how to engage students at all learning levels. “Otherwise,” he says, “our kids who were advanced were leaving in the 4th grade for the Advanced Work Classes. So we had to figure out not only how the kids with disabilities who were working below grade level could learn and succeed at their maximum potential, but also, [for] the kids who were working above grade level… how we would challenge those students, so that inclusion could be beneficial for them.” He emphasized that students’ level of competency did not necessarily fall along lines of learning ability: students working above grade level sometimes included those with disabilities and students working below grade level sometimes included those without disabilities.

Additional challenges will include the combination of two schools with different track records. The Harbor school was deemed a Level 4 school by the State Department of Education in 2010, meaning it ranked in the lowest 4th percentile of schools in the state, says Drew Echelson, the network superintendent who oversees the Henderson School for the Boston Public Schools. In 2013, the school was exited from its so-called “turnaround” status following improvements in its performance on the MCAS standardized tests. The Henderson elementary school, by contrast, has consistently been deemed a Level 1 school.

Henderson offered some perspective to the issue. “The O’Hearn had some of the lowest test scores in the city in 1990,” he says. “However, it’s been shown that through hard work and collaboration and teamwork and family support, inclusive schools – not only at the Henderson, but other schools – can have tremendous growth.”

Dianne Lescinskas, director of Project B.I.N.D. (Boston Inclusion Network for Disabilities) and another parent at the school who has been involved in the push to expand the Henderson’s grade offerings, summed up what she saw as a common sense of resolve. “As a school community, we’re all extremely hopeful that this will work, and we all feel that it has to work – the kids deserve this. And we’re all working toward that goal together.”

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