Among the 30 fourth-graders of St. Apollinaris Catholic School, Gretchen Wahle is unique, but by no means alone.
Whether bowing her head with more than 270 schoolmates at the outdoor morning prayer, studying a historical
novel in the classroom of Carrie Bacci, or sharing small talk and chocolate-dipped pretzels with a half-dozen girls at recess, the 11-year-old Napa girl with the cat-eye glasses and dark blonde hair could be another face in the plaid-uniformed crowd.
During a gap between first and second periods on a Wednesday morning, Gretchen grinned as she looked forward to an end-of-school-year sleepover on the weekend, and joining the track team next school year.
The normalcy of her schoolhouse life is no happenstance, but the result of extensive work by the St. Apollinaris faculty – an effort to keep Gretchen, who was born with Down syndrome, in the classroom mainstream, different yet one with her peers. Since entering the private kindergarten to eighth-grade school as a kindergartner, Gretchen has advanced through the curriculum mainly in the same classes as her peers, with the addition of speech classes and, starting this school year, a one-to-one aide to assist with lessons and scheduling.
“She has been with same 30 kids since kindergarten; by now they don’t see her differently—they just know it’s Gretchen,” said her mother, Erica Conway-Wahle. “There was one third grade teacher who told me, ‘Those are the most empathetic kids I’ve seen.’ They are getting and incredible education from her; she is teaching them just as much as they’re teaching her.”
Gretchen’s path through school is one shared by other local children with Down syndrome.
This past school year, Amy Barberi’s son, Luke, was a kindergartner at Browns Valley Elementary School, where he was fully integrated in a regular classroom. He had a one-on-one aide who stayed with him through the school day, but he participated in many of the same grade-level activities as his peers, Barberi said.
Prior to Browns Valley, Luke attended a regular preschool, where he began learning by leaps and bounds by interacting with the other children, Barberi said.
“It became quickly apparent to us that that was the way to go,” she said.
Browns Valley principal Frank Silva said that in addition to Luke, there is one other student at the elementary school with a disability who is also fully integrated. Both of these students participate in the classroom, play at recess, and have lunch with their peers.
“They learn a lot from their regular-developing peers, but also, the students learn from them,” Silva said, adding that both students are “well-respected, appreciated and loved.”
“These students are like rock stars here,” Silva said.
Luke was recently honored as Student of the Month at Browns Valley. Student of the Month is awarded to students who do the right thing — even when no one’s looking — and know how to cooperate and give their best effort, Silva said.
Barberi gave credit to Silva and the Browns Valley school for making Luke feel so welcome. She first met Silva at a parent information night, and told him her son had Down syndrome.
“He followed up with me later and said, ‘I want Luke to come to my school,’” Barberi said. “The biggest concern for us is we want Luke to be in classrooms and in schools where he’s wanted ... The fact that (Silva) reached out to me and wanted Luke was huge.”
While one of Luke’s favorite activities is reading, Barberi said his main “hobby” is “being a complete ham.”
“He thinks he’s a comedian and the star of his own show, all the time,” she said.
Down syndrome, in which a child is born with three copies of the 21st chromosome rather than the normal two, is the most commonly occurring genetic condition, according to the National Down Syndrome Society.
One in every 691 babies in the U.S. is born with Down syndrome, some 6,000 births per year. Today, there are more than 400,000 people with Down syndrome living in the U.S., according to the National Down Syndrome Society. The condition is named for the English physician John Langdon Down, who identified its symptoms in the 1860s.
Efforts to integrate developmentally disabled children into regular classrooms received a boost from the 2004 passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, known as IDEA. The federal law requires publicly funded schools to provide those with disabilities with an education as close as possible to its normal curriculum, in the “least restrictive environment” a student’s condition permits.
In the Napa Valley Unified School District, each pupil with a developmental disability receives an evaluation that includes classroom observation, which is used to create an individual education plan with input from parents, classroom teachers, special education staff, and specialists such as speech therapists or psychologists. Annual re-evaluations determine how much time a student with a disability spends in regular classrooms, and what special services are provided, according to Malisa Burkhart, director of special education.
Figures were unavailable for how many of the district’s 1,983 special-education children in 2013-14 had Down syndrome. However, Burkhart said such children enroll regularly enough that Napa schools work with the nonprofit Down Syndrome Connection of the Bay Area to train educators, counselors and other faculty members working with those students. The majority of Napa Valley Unified’s special-needs students spend at least half their school time in regular classrooms, she said.
Burkhart emphasized the value of helping those with Down syndrome become a part of everyday school life, especially in early childhood and primary school.
“It is the interest of the district that students are students first; all means all,” she wrote in an email. “I believe our students with special needs benefit from accessing the general education environment and the core curriculum to the maximum extent possible, and that they learn from staff and their peers both socially and academically.”
More recently, teamwork in educating local children also has extended beyond the classroom, to their parents.
Barberi, along with some friends, formed the Napa Valley Down Syndrome group a little more than a year ago. The circle serves as a resource for new parents and conducts most of its communications over Facebook. Families also get together for barbecues and other activities a few times a year — this gives the parents a chance to meet in-person and for the children to form friendships, Barberi said.
Cari Kowalski Canton’s daughter, Jayma, attended Salvador Elementary as a kindergartner. In addition to Down syndrome, Jayma was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and she attends a special day class with seven other kids.
“We love Salvador,” Canton said. “She is doing fantastic there.”
During art and music classes — as well as recess — Jayma is integrated with other students.
“She has a huge fan club out there,” said Canton, adding that a lot of students wave and yell, “Hi, Jayma!”
Similar to most kindergarten students, Jayma was learning the alphabet, numbers 1-20, as well as colors and shapes. But because she is in a smaller class, the attention is more individualized, according to Canton.
“Jayma is flourishing, and we love that,” she said.
At the St. Apollinaris school, Gretchen’s mother, Erica Conway-Wahle, was even more grateful for the support team surrounding her daughter – particularly because such special-needs support in a parochial school is not supported by the federal and state funding the same programs receive in public school districts.
“We lose all our speech therapy and other services from the county (Office of Education) when (our children) leave public schools, and that’s more than a lot of families can bear,” said Conway-Wahle, whose other two daughters attended the eighth and first grades at St. Apollinaris in the school year that ended June 6.
On most school days, Antonela Clunies-Ross, a classroom aide, sits with Gretchen during morning classes, guiding the girl on a parallel track through the same reading material as her 29 fourth-grade peers. Gretchen also joins her classmates for afternoon programs including science, computers and art, studying separately only for speech courses.
The amount of time Gretchen has spent alongside her schoolmates has led to a level of respect and friendship that impressed her classroom guides.
“They are so eager to help her, I sometimes have to say to them, ‘No, you guys, I’ve got this!’ Clunies-Ross said. “You’ve got four, five of them saying they’ll help. You can’t replace the experience; it’s valuable for everyone involved. The others learn so much about respect.”
“This class is a special class because of the empathy toward Gretchen, toward others,” said Bacci, her fourth-grade teacher. “They’ve learned to be accepting of people’s differences, which is something special in itself.”