Kids, parents say inclusive classrooms benefit all students

An 11-year-old girl shared an important message about school inclusivity with the top leaders of the Hillsborough County School Board during Tuesday’s meeting.

Grace Fasulo’s school, Mitchell Elementary School includes special needs children in mainstream classrooms and she wants the board to know it works. She thinks the inclusion program should be the norm, not the exception.

Grace is best friends with 11-year-old Brooks Lennon, who has developmental and physical disabilities. They met while in the second grade and spend time in class together.

“We go swimming in his pool. We play with his dogs. He loves dinosaurs and cars, so we play with those in his playroom,” said Grace.

Mitchell Elementary School's inclusion program allows children with disabilities to learn alongside nondisabled students.

“He shouldn't be treated differently but not only him, the other kids in our school that are categorized as people who are unable to do things just because of the way they look or the way they talk,” Grace said.

She spoke before school board members Tuesday afternoon, asking them to allow more students to learn in less restrictive classrooms.

“Mainstreaming teaches all students and teachers compassion, acceptance and patience. Let's make this the norm, not the exception in Hillsborough County,” she said.

Brooks’ parents pushed to get him into an inclusive environment at a young age.

“As a parent, especially a parent of a special needs child, you just want them to have as typical of an experience as they possibly can,” said his father, Steve Lennon.

And through his years in elementary school, they’ve already seen the program's positives.

“An inclusive environment is a much healthier environment for any child, and I would love for other families in Hillsborough to have the same experience that we've had,” said Lennon.

Grace’s advocacy for her friend was heartfelt and makes her parents proud.

“If Grace could be the catalyst to help other schools embrace these kind of kids, then it would be such a beautiful thing,” said Brian Fasulo, Grace’s father.

For Grace, it’s just the right thing to do.

“I think it's important that people don't see him as a different type of friend because he's not,” said Grace. “He's my friend, and I think it's important that everyone knows that.”

Brooks’ parents said Grace’s speech, calling for more inclusion across the district, really meant a lot. They said she is one of several friends he has made at Mitchell who makes a difference in his life.

Grace said no one should limit children just because they have different abilities.