The following article originally appeared in The Boston Globe, June 23, 2009.
Felecia Fields climbed the steps to the Patrick O’Hearn
Elementary School reluctantly, a million questions swirling in her mind. If she chose the O’Hearn for her son, would the children tease him because he has cerebral palsy? Would the teachers ignore him?
Inside, the hallways bustled with students changing
classes. She spotted one child pushing another in a wheelchair, and then there was a student using a walker. In the center of the hallway stood the school’s principal, William Henderson, with a white walking stick, exclaiming: “Welcome to the O’Hearn School."
With that, Fields’s anxiety vanished.
For 20 years, Henderson, 59, who is blind, has put the
fears of countless parents to rest, as he transformed the Dorchester school into a national model for teaching students with disabilities within mainstream classrooms. The practice - revolutionary two decades ago - attracted the attention of the US Department of Education and a host of news crews, including television anchor Katie Couric, who did a story in the mid-1990s.
This afternoon, staff, students, parents, and Mayor Thomas M. Menino will gather to present the highest of honors to the principal upon his retirement: The school, just a few blocks from his home, will be renamed the William Henderson Elementary School. It is a fitting tribute, they say, for a pioneer who has improved the lives of thousands of children.
“He’s a rock star," said Bridget Curd, a parent who co-chairs the school site council. “Many schools across the country and across the world have come to the Patrick O’Hearn School to see how students with severe special needs learn side-by-side with other children."
The ceremony has been in the making for months. A group of parents and teachers hatched the idea in January of the renaming, which required a public hearing and a School Committee vote.
Students say the school will not be the same without him.
“I feel really sad," said 7-year-old Leila Stella, a first-grader, as she made a Snow White puppet out of felt and construction paper. “We really love our principal."
At the O’Hearn, a third of the 230 students have been identified for special education services. The school teaches some of the city’s most severely disabled students, including those with autism, cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome, in classrooms with other students.
Before Henderson began the transformation of the
O’Hearn in 1989 at the request of school district leaders, students with disabilities would have been taught in segregated classrooms. Only a handful of other city schools have followed the O’Hearn’s lead, much to the dismay of special education advocates.
“Boston has far too many kids in segregated classrooms and not enough schools like the ’Hearn," said
Thomas Hehir, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and a former director of the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs. “The O’Hearn is one of the few schools in urban America that demonstrates all students can succeed."
Achieving success took more than just plopping these
children in the classroom. Teachers had to overhaul lesson plans. Classmates had to learn tolerance and empathy, and gain a sense of when to jump in and help a disabled student with a class project or merely open a door for a child using a walker or wheelchair.
A great unifying theme of the school has been the arts, in which self-expression often puts children of all abilities on a level playing field. One of the first projects students created at the reinvented school 20 years ago was a colorful mosaic featuring a child in a wheelchair in between
a standing girl and a boy. Last month, in “The Sound of Music," a girl with Down syndrome played a major role.
In leading the transformation of the O’Hearn, Henderson also has broken stereotypes about what people with disabilities can achieve in the workplace. Henderson -
who has retinitis pigmentosa, a gradual deterioration of the retina - started losing his peripheral vision when he was 12. He is now blind, although sometimes able to see shapes and bright colors.
In his early years in the Boston system, Henderson, a Yale graduate, worked as a bilingual teacher at the Hernández School, later advancing to assistant principal. During that time, his sight grew so bad that his doctor told him to give up working and take early retirement. It was a crushing turn of events for Henderson, who thought he would keep his eyesight until 60.
But Henderson stuck with his career, earning a doctorate at the University of Massachusetts.
“I feel blessed and privileged to have worked in the Boston public schools for 36 years," Henderson said, when interviewed about his impending retirement.
For first-time visitors to the O’Hearn, it is not always apparent that Henderson is blind. His blue eyes make eye contact. If he is sitting behind his desk, he sometimes grabs a small pad of white paper and uses visual memory to draw an object to stress a point or to write down a phone number. He says it is no different from writing with one’s eyes shut.
In the autumn, he can be spotted raking leaves in the school’s courtyard, and in the winter, shoveling the sidewalks.
When walking, though, he leads with his red-tipped stick, often moving at a quick clip. Henderson is a runner, hiker, kayaker, and bicyclist. As he navigates the hallways,
he greets students by name, recognizing their voices. For students who don’t speak up when they see him, Henderson asks who’s there.
After his retirement, Henderson plans on consulting
with VSA Arts of Massachusetts, a nonprofit that works with schools on teaching students of all abilities through the arts. The organization has partnered with the O’Hearn for 20
In his new role, Henderson will even find himself back
at the O’Hearn from time to time.
“There’s no winding down or coasting when you work with children," Henderson said. “Schools are like relationships. You have to keep working at it and improving it. You can’t get stale or you will fail. … You learn in life to build on successes."
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