3rd-grader Knows No Boundaries
Brian Smalls (left), Lauren Gilliano, Tim Celfo, Jake Wainstein, Ryan Walter
“He’s awesome. He’s a bugger. He’s funny. He’s smart. He’s my world.” Dana Wainstein pauses, clearly filling up with pride. Wainstein is talking about her son, Jake, a third-grader at Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School. When it comes to Jake, Wainstein has a lot to be proud of.
Jake recently performed at the school’s orchestra concert, accurately plucking the strings of his cello, creating melodic sounds that some never thought he could produce. Jake was born with Down Syndrome and has inspired many of his classmates as he’s worked hard to meet milestones that many of them take for granted.
For Jake, school is not just about receiving an education. It is about being a respected, valued member of a tight-knit school community through meaningful inclusion. When Jake expressed an interest this year in playing the cello Wainstein had her doubts.
"Jake’s aide, Brian Smalls, came to me one day and said 'I think he can do it,'" said Wainstein. "Jake really loved when his older sister Olivia played the cello, so I thought about it and said 'Okay, let's do it!'"
Inspired by Jake's excitement to learn the cello, Westtown-Thornbury special education teachers Lauren Gilliano and Ryan Walter joined with Smalls and string teacher Tim Celfo to devise a system to help Jake learn the instrument.
"My teaching approach with Jake is definitely more hands-on than some of my other string students," said Celfo. "I'm really impressed with his abilities. He's plucking the right strings and hitting the right notes. Music is so therapeutic. Once Jake finishes a piece he looks so proud. His fellow students are super supportive. They all pat him on the back and say 'Good job, Jake!'"
The concept of meaningful inclusion allows special education students to spend a good portion of their day learning alongside their peers in general education classrooms, which helps all students to thrive and learn. Implementing inclusive practices has been one of the main goals for special education in the West Chester Area School District.
The district currently educates approximately 1,500 special education students with support services offered in its sixteen schools and a combination of specialized programs outside of the district.
Gilliano has made it her mission for the past six years to push the boundaries to create an even greater inclusive environment for special education students at the school.
She and Walter conduct school-wide activities and lessons that Gilliano said allow students to ask questions that help them better understand children with disabilities.
"It helps them to see that while things may be more difficult for students like Jake, he is capable of doing things as you or I would. I think it has really helped the school community as a whole. Everyone loves to celebrate these kids."
“The most important thing is for Jake to be with his peers, to feel included, to be a part of the community,” said Walter. “That is something that we really focus on.”
Jake spends part of his school day with Gilliano, Walter, and paraprofessional Brian Smalls. The three of them work seamlessly together to ensure that he, and other special education students, gain the knowledge and supports needed to succeed in their general education classroom.
He follows an academic schedule that includes reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and specials. Gilliano and Walter co-teach to prepare Jake for the lessons he learns in Maureen Isola's general education classroom.
For instance, Gilliano will work on sight words with Jake who mainly communicates through sign language. She teaches him the words in sign language and helps him master the words before crossing over to reading instruction.
"A lot of science and social studies are pre-taught as well before Jake goes to Mrs. Isola's classroom," said Gilliano. "Once he is there he uses sign language and his assistive technology device to participate in things that are happening in the classroom. That alone has helped Jake's self-esteem. Jake has grown so much socially, emotionally, and academically since he started kindergarten here."
"He takes so much pride in his work," said Smalls. "He loves showing off his accomplishments. I'm so proud of him. He's like my little brother. I really enjoy working with him."
With the support of his team at Westtown-Thornbury, the possibilities for Jake are endless.
“If you ask him, Jake will tell you he wants to be a photographer,” said Smalls.
Dana Wainstein, who has three other children in the WCASD, is extremely active in the Chester County Down Syndrome Interest Support Group. What is the crucial thing she wants people to know about her son and other children like him?
"Presume confidence; presume intelligence. I think that is a rule that we need to follow across the board for children with disabilities. They might learn differently, but once they get it, they get it."
“I always say that something is only a disability if you allow it to be,” said Gilliano. “We don't see disabilities; we only see capabilities."