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Learning Together: A School That Embraces Inclusion for All

December 2, 2019
Jessica Tunney
At TLC Public Charter School, students of diverse abilities thrive in classrooms of caring and creativity.

TLC stands for Tomorrow's Leadership Collaborative public charter school. TLC is also well-known to stand for Tender Loving Care, which is intentional for this school because that’s the learning environment we create for our kids.

TLC was founded in 2018 because there’s a significant gap – in Orange County, California and across the country – in educational options that are inclusive to students with disabilities. With TLC, I wanted to show what it looks like to bring kids who are diverse in many ways together in a supportive learning environment where all have an opportunity to thrive.

Harnessing the Power of Inclusion to Serve All Students
Jessica Tunney founded TLC Public Charter School to address a shortage of inclusive education options in Orange County. The school's mission is to demonstrate that not only is inclusion possible, but it is preferable for students with disabilities, students who do not have disabilities and students with diverse life experiences of all kinds.

Our school mission is clear: We are here to demonstrate – to parents, teachers and other school leaders - that not only is inclusion possible, but it is preferable for kids with disabilities, kids who do not have disabilities, kids who are gifted, kids who are English language learners, kids from a range of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, and kids with diverse life experiences of all kinds.

The central innovation of TLC is the way our team of teachers, service providers, and support staff collaborate and work together to make it possible for us to include everyone together in the classroom throughout the school day.

Teacher Alysha Setchell instructs her first and second grade students. TLC staff is committed to an ethos of speaking words of care and kindness to each other and students.

At TLC, we do not segregate or separate students from their peers to provide the supports they need. Instead, we bring the supports and therapies into the classroom setting for the benefit of all.

To be successful with this model and vision of inclusion, we need to be a highly creative school with a staff that collaborates, communicates and works together to reach our goals.

If we're not being adaptive, then we're not doing our job. Our staff meets as a team each afternoon to debrief and reflect on the day, to share strategies and ideas and to stay curious and current with our students’ changing needs, interests and goals.

Emma Lares (center) attends TLC Public Charter School with her brother, Sebastian, who has Down syndrome.

Most importantly, our staff views all students – including those with additional support needs – as competent, capable, interesting and important.

We have to be flexible in our teaching. It takes a lot of thought to have kids with a diverse range of abilities learning together in the classroom, so we must continually develop our own expertise as educators and stay current with research in education and innovative strategies for teaching and learning.

We use research-based strategies, but we use them thoughtfully and see if they fit the student. We try out an idea and then adapt it to our purposes.

Teacher Jennifer Selin works with TLC student Sebastian Lares.

We give all kids an understanding of how to communicate with others, how to collaborate and solve problems, how to embrace what's different about us, what's the same about us and what's most essentially human in each of us. We do that in ways that are fun, that provoke curiosity and allow kids to identify what they care about.

We provide each child with opportunities to identify their passions, ask questions and demonstrate their curiosity. We provide the supports students need to be themselves.

Our staff is incredible. They have a mindset that inclusion matters. There’s also a strong sense of parity between the paraprofessional staff and the teaching staff and myself. We're all in this together.

"When kids are together with diverse peers, they learn a sense of empathy that is hugely important for society and life in general," says TLC director Jessica Tunney.

The paraprofessionals take what the teachers design and make it accessible for all the kids.

Our paraprofessionals bring the kids together to learn a task, then just let them be. When you give kids what they need to learn, wonderful things happen.

When kids are together with diverse peers, they learn a sense of empathy that is hugely important for society and life in general. It helps in their academics, particularly with writing and art, because they learn perspective.

When you can see the world through the eyes of someone who's not verbal, or is a different kind of friend than you're used to, it also gives kids access to understanding multiple ways they solve problems in other areas of study, like math or engineering.

We consider all our students to be special learners, including our neuro-typical students. This model is really powerful for all kids.

TLC teacher Alysha Setchell works with student Frankie Dickson (right).

We live in a diverse world, so we model how we want students to engage with that world. Some of that is about empathy and friendship and kindness. Some of that is about facing what you know, and what you don't know, and collaborating to investigate a problem.

We have students who were not very verbal when they came to TLC, but after a few months they adopted other students’ phrases and language. They spontaneously show sides of themselves we didn't know existed.

TLC to me is home. We have an ethos of speaking words of care and kindness to each other.

We’re showing that this idea of inclusion in schools isn't a fantasy. Inclusion takes creative thought and practice to achieve, but it is possible and preferable and joyful.

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