Hello welcome to inclusive occupations, sharing stories of not just being invited to the party, but dancing. I'm your host Savitha Sundar, I'm a school based occupational therapist. This podcast is a space for OTs and others who work with children and youth in education to be informed, inspired, and empowered to create an inclusive community for the students they serve.
Welcome listeners to the final episode of season two of inclusive occupations. In season two, we have been listening to exemplary scholars who have taken research and put it into action in their commitment to enabling and inclusive world for individuals with disabilities in education and beyond. Today, I have a special guest and an interesting story of how we connected so last year in October, I was returning from an Inclusion Conference. I took an Uber home from the airport, the Uber driver, Mr. Grant and I incidentally engaged in a very insightful conversation.
He sounded very much like my husband manual, and I wanted to put them in touch because I felt like they were made from the same fabric. So when I got off at home, I introduced Emmanuel to Mr. Plant. When Mr. Grant realized that my husband teaches science in alternate education, he shared that his wife, in fact runs an inclusive school called Bridgeway Academy. Then it was Emanuel's turn to say, well, your wise mind should now connect because Savita is passionate about inclusive education. So long story short, we connected and the lovely couple took us out for dinner and a friendship happened. What is the coincidence that I should meet somebody who is the founder of an inclusion school while I was returning home from an Inclusion Conference, right? So the wife of the Uber driver is none other than Dr. Natalie Davenport, our special guests today. I had the good fortune of visiting her school, we often hear about full inclusion, but we see it quite rarely. So without further ado, I want us to get straight to hearing the journey of Dr. Natalie Davenport, founder and superintendent at Bridgeway Preparatory Academy. Welcome that leads so thrilled to have you on my podcast.
Thank you so much, Savitha. It's been a long journey. But we are finally here.
It's been trying for nearly 10 months to get you on this podcast. And I'm so glad it finally has happened.
I thank you for your patience. Of course,
it's worth the weight for sure. I know. Please tell us about your journey in education and how you got to become the founder and Superintendent of this inclusive charter school.
Okay, sure. I'm going to encapsulate it so it's not so long. But it's been a 40 year span. I started my experience in education as a teacher, I actually flew to Dallas on a Sunday night. And on a Monday morning, I began teaching for the first time in a middle school. And in retrospect, when I think about it, I believe my commitment to inclusion started that first day. And let me tell you why. So I meet my principal. And I noticed that I'm at one end of a very long hall. And at the other end of the hall, there's a door, we begin walking, and he's going to show me to my classroom. And we walk down the hall and we continue to walk and he's pointing out classrooms on each side. And we continue to walk and then we get to the back door. And he opens the door. And he points out to the back and he goes, there's your classroom. And there I was in a lonely portable in the back of the school building. But being a brand new teacher, I was so excited. I was going to conquer the world. I was like Okay, here we go. I'll take this and I'll run with it and I'll do my very best. And I really feel that that experience in and of itself that I now remember 40 years later made an indelible impression on me. I left there I went on to teach at a high school and while in the high school like have the opportunity to take students who are in special education to visit a college. Now, that's not significant now. But in the 1980s, students in special education, had aspirations to possibly manage fast food restaurants or go into some other line of work after high school. But certainly college was not an option. It was just amazing for me to see how naturally they fit on that junior college campus, and how welcoming the people were there. Fast forward a few years, I get my doctorate, and I start my mental health and educational resources company while I'm teaching in the Texas a&m system. And I am serving neurodiverse, and neurotypical students who are struggling in some kind of way in the school environment. I got my licensure as a licensed specialist in School Psychology, and I began supporting families. And it was really great. The thing that really challenged me though at that time, for the students that came to me privately for academic testing, was that finances made a difference. Those families that could afford private teams to work with their students, that students eventually had every opportunity to do whatever they want it to because of that support. And at that time, I had the experience of two students on each end of the neurodiverse track one on with autism spectrum disorder, and the other gifted and talented with a myriad of learning disorders, sleep disorders, behavioral disorders, worked with each of them for about a 10 year period. And at the other end of that period, they both successfully graduated from college, one became an attorney, the other went into the corporate world, and are working independently and functioning, happily living very happy, productive lives in society. And at that moment, I just thought, what would happen if every child, regardless of the ability to pay, could have the opportunity to have a team of professionals that would support them through their educational journey to ensure they were able to live their best lives. And the charter school opportunity came, and here we are. When I first started the journey of the charter school, I knew I wanted an inclusive school. I had no idea how to make that happen, though. I found your universal design for learning at that point, went to Harvard to study more about it, and found that that was really the key to making my plan work. So I wrote my charter. And here we are today. We're in our fifth year, this year, actually, with 112 students. And so we're really excited about the progress.
Really, what an interesting journey, and thank you for sharing your why this is really good to know. So tell us a little bit about bridge Bridgeway Preparatory Academy, or
so as you said, Bridgeway Preparatory Academy is an inclusion school. And you know, you'll hear individuals say, Well, you get my school has inclusion classes too. And I'll say no. Bridgeway is an inclusion school when you walk in the door. The expectation is you're fully included in every aspect of the school environment. Now, of course, the individual education plan for neurodiverse kids actually guides that. But to the greatest extent possible, every student is included in all spent all aspects of the school. We do this though, by personalizing education for each student that comes in. When a student enrolls in our school, they initially have a needs assessment. And that needs assessment is the opportunity for us to develop the goals that the family has for that student, as well as the educational goals to ensure that that child was successful. We make what we call a Community Learning Plan from a vet needs assessment. And then every month, the family, outside providers, aunts, uncles, caretaker who ever is involved with that child's growth and development, we get together and we make sure that we're on track. And so really for each student in our school, while they may be neurodiverse, or neurotypical, they each have their own personalized plan. as to how we're going to reach all those goals that we have for them both academically, socially, interpersonally. Behaviorally, whatever the goals are that we come up with, that's what we work on. And it has proven to be the absolute best way to educate a child. Absolutely know
if this is it, when you say this I, we had, we had a Mr. Bill team and one of the special education teachers I worked with in our podcast early on in season one. And he said that we always talk about how we can make special education more like general education, but what we need to do is make general education look more like special education salutely. And that's exactly what you're doing, like every student has an individualized plan. Right. And you also mentioned about a community edge learning learning plan that you tell us Tell me a little bit about what that are.
So we we bring the parent in the community learning plan is not only focused on the academic goals that we have for the child, but like I said, we're looking at a child holistically. But we're doing more than that, for instance, a question in the community learning plan to the parent or the caretaker is, how do you like to be communicated with? Do you want text? Do you want emails? Do you want to be communicated with on a daily basis? Would you like a weekly basis? How would you like to know how your child is doing in school? So that is how specific we get with the plan for each family? We're not only talking about that, math, reading, writing, World Language, we're talking about extracurricular activities, do you want your child to experience our robotics program? How do they like performing fine arts or performing arts? So the community learning plan really looks at? What does success mean for the family and the school. And then it allows us to revisit that plan every month, to make sure that we're on track. And so that was the opportunity that we had from day one, to figure out, what are the things that are going to make the students successful in our environment? And what are the barriers, the Community Learning Plan allows us to then also identify in the planning stage, not after we get in the classroom and try it out on the kid, right? In the planning stage, we as much as possible, identify any of those things that might challenge us a child's ability to benefit from instruction in the classroom. And we plan around that ahead of time. So it's a proactive planning approach, as opposed to a reactive planning approach, if that makes sense.
Totally, totally. And that's not what we do, oftentimes in education. And I also think that the fact that you are starting off with every student having their own specific plan, kind of rules out this possibility of, you know, of kids falling between the cracks, right, right.
When you are when the family knows, and the teacher knows, and many times the child because students can be involved in their community learning plan programs. And as a matter of fact, you know, that you this year, we assumed a private school. And those students are now in our public school setting. And one of the things that was really joyous to us is the number of those students who came into our setting, and we're speaking on their own behalf about what their criteria was to actually enroll in Bridgeway. And that's what we really want. The Community Learning Plan The needs assessment UDL, the goal is to develop what we call an expert learner, a learner who can advocate for themselves, be it neurotypical or no diverse in any academic environment. Because think how great it feels. If you're an individual, and you're in an environment where you're expected to gain some information, and you know, that the way it's being presented is not what is a best fit for you think about a third grader, being able to articulate to the teacher may I please go to the back of the room, because sitting with my group is causing me to be distracted. It can be that simple. That how powerful is that? For a child. And so that's why the Community Learning Plan is so important because you're right. For every single student, their educational plan is individualized within the system.
That is so wonderful. And what is the mix of students in your classroom? Like how many students have IEP s and and other identified special needs? And how many are?
Right? So that's a great question. Our goal is 5050, we're not quite there. Right now, about 20% of our students have diagnosed neural diversities. But that, that doesn't mean that there are not other students who are who are in RTI process 504 plans, dyslexia or other types of language learning challenges. When we think of diversities, we think of anything that's not normal, typical or typical in the classroom. So you can have a child with a language learning difference, or a second language, for instance, that can be something that prohibits that child from learning, or grasping information in the regular ed classroom. And so one of the things we get in that community learning plan, again, is what additional supports might we need to provide this child through ELL or some other type of setting to ensure that they are 100% grasping what's being delivered in the instructional environment? So we're at again, about 20% neurodiverse, not including ELL students, and we're shooting for 50%.
That is so wonderful. Is it that makes me ask you how do you pass the word around about your program about the Bridgeport Bridgeway. Academy and get the student cohorts that are representative of a truly diverse community?
You know, this year, we actually did a strategic marketing campaign where we identified specifically, we are looking for marginalized students, those students on both ends of the neural diverse spectrum, we're looking for ELL students we're looking for those students that parents clearly know are gifted. But they're faltering because they're so unmotivated. And that has really worked. But I'll tell you, parents, word of mouth has been everything in our school. So when we started Bridgeway, we knew that parents would be key, not only in marketing the program, but as part of the team. So we have a transparent policy. If a family wants to visit a classroom, they don't have to make an appointment. They don't have to schedule it out. Parents simply comes and says, I'd like to observe my student in their science class today. And we welcome that. We have an amazing what we call parent ambassador program. And throughout the day, you'll see our parents helping in the lunch room, you'll see our parents helping with drop off and pickup, which is amazing. We have a very active PTO. Parents have really been the success of Bridgeway. And we we invite their constructive criticism as well as their glows because we know all of that will make our program better.
That's wonderful that parents get to play such a important role, which I think would be ideal in a lot of schools. But sometimes I wonder if if people's socio economic realities, prevent them from playing an active part in school, like, for example, their parents were one one of the parent gets to stay home and be taking a more active role while their families they all they both have to work and right, more difficult. So those students whose parents are not able to take on an active role, how did they get involved? And do you take the effort to communicate with them and get them in the picture? How does it work?
Yeah, that that is such a great question. And it's key. It is key, especially when you're talking about breaking cycles. And this is what I have found. All parents want their children to succeed. I don't care what the socio economic strata is, but you're right. Some parents have more of an opportunity to be involved than others. So we do have students that we bust from various parts of town. And our commitment is to I always have parents involved, all parents. So either we will provide if a parent doesn't have transportation to the school, for instance, we will provide an Uber if a parent wants to come and be in person, for instance, for that CLP meeting that I told you about, we are a small school, we do have donors that are committed to that parent involvement. And so we do have the opportunity to make sure parents can get to us one way or another, but also we go to them. Because sometimes it is just not possible during a school day, parents have to work, even during the evening. So sometimes it's a Saturday, going out and doing a homework activity within a community congregating at a church that has allowed us to use the recreational facility to talk with parents about whatever, you know, do our community learning plans with the parents. Now that we have zoom, it has been amazing. We have we have now that has really given us the opportunity to reach any and every parent and with a number of the fundings that we have had made available to us through the Texas Education Agency, we can provide the computer and we can also provide hotspots to families that need them. So that has given families and children access that they didn't have in the past. But I'm really glad you asked that question, because that's a key question.
That's, that's really nice. And I think, you know, oftentimes we complain about, you know, this is not going to be possible and and the thing is, where there is a will there is a way And absolutely, or a group of committed committed people who have put your vision out there, and then the resources have just followed behind you seems like you identify these funders, like why can't pay parents or be part of this, because they have all these different challenges, okay, then we'll address those challenges, we'll just
overcome those. And we are and we're still taking donations, when we don't have all we need. It's, you know, being a school where you have a small student to teacher ratio. And frankly, sometimes you have three or four adults in a classroom with 10 or 12 students because of the needs of the academic needs, the basic behavioral needs, or social needs of students that will enable them to remain in the regular education environment for a full day. It takes human resources, and we continue to strive to make sure we find that balance
that is so inspiring to hear. And I wonder like so do you teachers go through special training? Do you specifically recruit teachers invested in your philosophy? How do you go about with that? Yeah,
you know, we're very transparent in our interview, because, again, the understanding of what an inclusion school means is different for different people. So in our interviews, we are very clear with what our inclusion philosophy looks like. And often we will invite teachers prior to the final determination to come in and teach a class, maybe for an hour or so not only for them, to, you know, experience our students, but for the students to experience them and for us to see if this is a good fit. Because, you know, in all schools, we have teachers that are so committed to children in charter schools, in ISDS, and in private schools, but every environment is not right for every teacher. Right? And so we try to do our best to make sure that teachers are really clear not only of what inclusion means to us, but the time that it takes in planning and programming to carry out our vision based on our neural science of UDL.
That is great. Makes me wonder right now there is so many teacher, attrition in schools, people are leaving school teaching left and right. How do you How does it Yeah, how is it standing out in your school? Have you
you know, that, like all schools, it's impacted us significantly. But again, we have parents who are teachers. That is I think one of the very unique things about our school, the number of our teachers who also have students in our schools. And so what we do is we one of the things we do is we Look, not only among our teaching staff to refer, but we look in our families. And we have found some amazing personnel within the families of the students that are in attendance at our school. The other thing that we do is we have an in house training program, for instance, right now, one of our teacher assistants, who is an amazing, amazing educator, is pursuing her master's degree through a proof, a program that we're actually funding in the school to become certified to teach pre K. And so, you know, yes, all school districts are having to get very creative. There's a task force right now, where are the teachers? Well, you know, we know that COVID significantly impacted our educational system, not only the students, but also the teaching staff. It's it's just been really tough for all of us. But we're bouncing back. We're bouncing back slowly but surely.
Well, that's that's good to know that, you know, you have a plan to
must have a plan
as COVID that crisis that ever Yes. And going, do you have any interesting story to share a story that can reassure us that educating children of all abilities together is the right thing to do?
Yeah. You know, that is a good question. And I have hundreds of stories. And what I want to say in general, is that an inclusion program, what we have found, is not only extremely beneficial for the neurodiversity, but it is also extremely beneficial for the neurotypical student. One of the serendipities that we anticipated, but just didn't know how strongly it would happen is, for instance, a student on the spectrum who has limited social skills, sitting at a table at lunch, and all of a sudden, a whole group of girls get up with their lunches and go over. So she's not sitting alone at the table. So just understanding and actually living out the commitment, that diversity and neuro diversity doesn't mean bad, negative, whatever. It just means different. And one of the situations that I remember, specifically, I had a young man that came to us with a severe anxiety disorder, and again, our neural diversities reach across the spectrum of challenges. He had been bullied at the school that he was in, and he was just not surviving in that school. He came to our school, and through a program that we developed of blended learning, some time at home some time at school, he just blossomed. A peer was assigned to him when he got to the school so he had a friend from day one. He was well liked in our school. And after he, we only go to the fifth grade after he left left us in the fifth grade. We got a letter from his parents, and it brought us all to tears. They were just really concerned about how the struggle with the bullying the anxiety had impacted him educationally, how COVID had impacted him educationally. When he went on to sixth grade. We had prepared him he immediately wasn't accepted into a GT program at his middle school. And his parents were just so relieved. And for us, it was just it was such a relief because he was such an amazing kid. But you could see from day one, and his behavior, how the the anxiety, the fear of being in crowds and classrooms had impacted him. And so, you know, we all we worked very hard on it. It was a plan that was very unique for that child, but we were successful. We were successful.
So it's powerful to hear these stories, and I apologize for the lawn mower that's operating outside the neighborhood. So if you hear the background noise, that's what it is. So, yeah, I had a question. I just just slipped off my head. But so what is the future that you envision for your program? How do you plan on passing on the baton?
Right. When we started this program, the overarching goal was always to be a community resource. We wanted to eventually become a lab school. And we're so excited that that actually came to fruition last year, in small part in that we do now have our first university partnership with the University of North Texas here in Dallas. The goal is to make sure that those individuals who do have a desire to work in in this kind of environment have a place to go where they can learn from professionals, not only about instruction, but about neural diversity, because you begin maybe wanting to be a teacher, but like me, your appetite is wedded at wet and you want to take that further. And so we want to eventually have an assessment center, a center that studies that does research on neural diversities. Uh, yeah, our plans are big. And everyday, we're working on them. Because we know, again, that there are teachers in all types of school districts that want to do the right thing for their children, their students, but they don't have the training, they don't have the opportunity to really go somewhere and practice their craft, under individuals who have expertise. And that is really, that's when we think long term, that's really the goal.
Yeah, you know, it almost makes me wonder, I think through, like just studying your program and, you know, having it, you know, extracting the wisdom that has that comes out of this program, to future and diverse, is going to be really, really helpful. And I wonder if the small school setting that you have is also the way to go about in the future with our school districts? I know there are a lot of other challenges and pulling resources and stuff like that. But maybe, maybe, you know, I just so happy that you have you have affiliated yourself with u n t and u n t, right?
Yes, the University of North Texas in Dallas, down in the southern sector, Dallas. Yeah, yeah, we, you know, we were approved for 750 students per campus. And we quickly saw that that was really too big. However, there is a threshold that the Texas Education Agency requires for any charter school. So we are working on getting to that threshold. But hand in hand, we're also have the understanding clearly that our current educational system cannot solely fund a program like this one, it is imperative that we have donors, corporate donors that are our see our vision, and are willing to assist us financially in ensuring that if a classroom of 12 kids needs, forced for adult resources, that that's what we have. Because the outcome, I mean, even in our, in our now five years, we have students that came to us at pre K four or pre k three, who are now upper elementary. And the difference is like night and day. So it's not something that we think works, we have now seen, you know, the proof is there, that when you work hard and implement this program, you you see miraculous things, your your dreams are small compared to what actually comes out of this. And it's an everyday Marvel. It is.
That's wonderful. So I remember the question I wanted to ask you, so I'm just wondering, do you have any formal discussions about disabilities and differences with the students in the class? Or do you just does that just organically happen in your community? Because the reason I'm asking is when there are students with very significant disabilities, it's kinda little obvious, but then there are milder disabilities, students just assume that the kid is annoying, or the cat is and then, you know, bullying occurs. Is there any explicit talk about
different most, most of it comes organically, because we don't ever single out a child, but we do in our social emotional learning. We talk about diversity all of the time, because it's so fundamental to what we're up to at our school, exposing students to differences and what's really exciting about our school. Another of the many exciting things is the diverse cultural mix that we have. We have students from all over the world in our school. So we have a foray into differences from that. We do a lot of celebrating the things that many schools don't we celebrate Diwali, for instance, because it is representative of part of our student population. So organically Yes, a lot of conversations come up in our small group SEL programming, but we don't we don't ever directly pinpoint a child per se. But we have, for instance, had to have a general discussion about what autism is because a student asks, What is autism? This is a word I heard. Does this is this what Autism means? So yes, we we do definitely have those conversations.
Thank you so much, Natalie. So you want to leave our listeners, our listeners are mostly educators and therapists who work in the school system? If you were to leave us with a final takeaway, what would that be? Oh.
Simply put inclusion works. inclusion works. And the earlier that children are exposed to neuro diversity is the better when the adult is comfortable. In an environment, where there are students with all types of strengths and weaknesses, and diverse needs, students see that as normal. So from very early on, you are communicating to your neurotypical students, that neural diversities again, they're not a bad thing. They're just differences. And we all have differences. It's the way of the world. Now we are people with neuro diversity, neuro diversity is our experiencing, and being integrated in aspects of life we would not have imagined even 10 years ago. It is, in my opinion, what's best for our world, and extremely fulfilling.
Thank you so much. for it. It's been such an interesting discussion and great insights that we've heard from you. One quick question that comes to me I'm sorry, I don't think I can ever be done is what happens when they leave your program and go to middle school and high school. Does that trend continue in the school districts that they go into?
You know, most school districts No. But we have identified a couple of districts from feedback from parents who have older siblings of our younger students that have gone on to various school districts. And we have found that there are school districts that are moving in the way of inclusion. But the thing that we do to make sure to the greatest extent possible that it happens is that we educate the parent, and we equip the learner. We equip the learner, when we say we're building expert learners, we are building learners that can go any and everywhere and communicate appropriately, what their needs are. So honestly, we're not leaving it up to the school. We really are. We know that there are great programs out there. But we're not leaving it up to the program. We're really our commitment. And our goal is to equip the family and the student before they leave us.
So love those last words that you shared you we equip the learner, we always blame. There's no you're not. You're starting off telling them don't blame the system. You'll be right.
Right. Kidscape Take. Take responsibility. Yeah, yeah.
Yep. Yeah. Thank you so much.
Thank you, and I appreciate your patience. Again. You can visit Bridgeway at any time our website Bridgeway preparatory.org. We'd love to have our listeners come and see what we're up to. It's an exciting environment.
And I highly recommend that because I did it and it's all true. What we hear is all true.