Paige Vass

Paige Vass, a special education teacher at Harrisonburg High School, works alongside faculty to facilitate a more inclusive environment for children with disabilities.

The Virginia Department of Education recognized two of Harrisonburg’s special education programs last month for excellence in inclusive practices of disabled students. These two programs, Preschool Power Play and Harmony for All, were both recipients of VDOE’s Best Practice for Inclusive Education Initiative.

VDOE recognized exemplary inclusive programs both at Harrisonburg’s preschool and high school levels. Preschool Power Play is an innovative initiative allowing disabled 3-year olds an hour a day to interact with nondisabled students at Elon W. Rhodes Early Learning Center, while Harmony for All is a collaborative program at Harrisonburg High School for students with disabilities in music education.

I think what these two programs did is not only help the children with disabilities, but allow nondisabled children to really appreciate the strengths of children with disabilities,” Scott Kizner, superintendent of Harrisonburg City Public Schools, said. “We try to capture the unique strengths of all our children.”

As part of the VDOE initiative, each program received $2,500 in grant money. Both Preschool Power Play and Harmony for All were asked to use a portion of their grants to create videos highlighting their programs as instructional guides for other Virginia schools to use as examples of inclusive practices.

In its first year, Preschool Power Play will use this video to highlight the individual accomplishments of children in the program. Karen Lindberg, a special education supervisor, believes that for these children struggling with interpersonal skills, the social confidence they gain is what’s most fulfilling.

“One of the children who we’re going to feature in the film that we make was very reluctant to go out into the community with his family,” Lindberg said. “Now that he’s been going to school, his mom is saying that he’s been asking to come, so he’s made a huge gain in his social skills and ability to go out into different environments.”

In addition to filming a video for the VDOE website, Harmony for All’s grant money will fund other initiatives that seek to expand music education to intellectually or developmentally disabled children who’ve never used an instrument before. This program has found success in the past four years, creating a space for both nondisabled and disabled students to work as an instrumental ensemble at the high school.

Paige Vass, a special education teacher at Harrisonburg High School, created this initiative when she noticed some of her students wanting to participate in the band. Vass collaborated with the band directors to create an environment where disabled students could work alongside nondisabled peers. She’s found that for most of her students with autism spectrum disorder, the fine arts environment is the perfect setting to develop their social skills.

“For them, where words fail, music speaks,” Vass said.

Harmony for All has gained national recognition for its accomplishments in inclusive music education. Vass presented her initiative at the Kennedy Center Arts and Special Education Conference, the Virginia Music Educators Association Conference and the National Association for Music Educators Conference. But for her, the most rewarding aspect of this program have been the bonds formed between nondisabled and disabled band members.

“One of my students started with me as a freshman, and when I asked her who her friends were, she could only identify a few select adults,” Vass said. “One year later, she had an accident and was in the hospital and heard from so many of the kids in her band family and for the first time, really truly believed that she had an army of friends.”

Vass has expanded the program from just the instrumental music program to the inclusion of special needs students in all fine arts courses at Harrisonburg High School. Kizner has pushed for special needs programs like Vass’ and Lindberg’s, as he feels it represents the needs of Harrisonburg’s students.

“About 11 percent of our student population is children with disabilities,” Kizner said. “I have three daughters myself and I know that each of them had a friend or two that they learned greatly from because they were different from themselves. I think that’s what I’m encouraging in our school systems.”

Before becoming superintendent, Kizner had a strong background in special education. He and his wife started Virginia’s first group home for adolescents with ASD at Grafton School in 1981 and served on Virginia’s State Special Needs Advisory Committee from 2009-2015. Now as superintendent, Kizner is supporting special needs programs to bring inclusion into Harrisonburg’s classrooms.

“What separates Harrisonburg [from other programs in Virginia] is we don’t have to do what we’re doing,” Kizner said. “We’re doing it because we think it’s the right thing to do.”

Harmony for All and Preschool Power Play are both working on educational videos that will be posted on VDOE’s website in August 2018. To Kizner, a focus on inclusion in Harrisonburg’s public schools has made for a stronger student body, beyond just those with disabilities.

“It’s really exciting when I see those children in classes collaborating, doing group work and projects with their nondisabled peers,” Kizner said. “I think it benefits and teaches every child about acceptance and understanding, which is much more important than doing well on a state test score.”

Contact Christy Freitag at freitacd@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.

Christy Freitag is a senior media arts and design major concentrating in journalism and minoring in political science. When she’s not writing, you can find Christy hiking, watching documentaries, listening to podcasts or quoting lines from The West Wing.