U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan paid a visit to Wilde Lake High School Tuesday and called the Columbia school a microcosm of the educational world: diverse and inclusive.
Duncan and Assistant Secretary of Education Alexa Posny joined Wilde Lake Principal James LeMon and school system Director of Special Education Patty Daley in a round table discussion. They questioned a panel of about 20 students, parents, school staff and Howard County Public School System staff about inclusive practices for special needs students at the school.
"We as adults love to talk about celebrating diversity, but that's really hard to do," Duncan said. "In high school years, we can pull toward people more like us … what's the school doing to help you (as students) cross those almost natural dividing lines?"
Special education teacher Teri Lienhard said an English class Duncan visited earlier that morning was made up of about 85 percent special needs students.
"We don't presume that they know any less than any student who comes into this building, and they performed very highly in class today," said Marty Brennan, English team leader and Lienhard's co-teacher. "We give them tough questions, they grapple for the answers and we show them that they can do it, that they can be independent learners."
Wilde Lake has an 86 percent graduation rate for special needs students; nationwide, Duncan said, the average is 60 percent. While teachers enumerated ways they're including special needs students into mainstream classrooms, students spoke to the general culture of the school.
"I think the real goal of inclusion is to get to the point where it takes real reflection to even realize you're with (special needs students)," said senior Thomas Klotz. "I was on a choir trip my freshman year and hung out with a student from the special education program the entire time. It's not that I didn't recognize it, it's just that it seemed so natural … it's something that's always been working here. I don't recognize my everyday interactions with them because it's so integrated."
Wilde Lake was chosen for the panel, Posny said, because it's a highly inclusive school.
"The kids (on the panel) spoke so eloquently about inclusion," Posny said. "It's a way of life here. Kids with disabilities are kids, first and foremost, and this school recognizes that."
The work being done at Wilde Lake is being done across the entire school system, Daley said.
"We're working on the same thing everywhere, focusing on presuming competency and the way we think when we think about these students," she said. "(Wilde Lake) is a good example of how that's working. There's a million good examples in Howard County."