An Advocate for Inclusion
By Rob Schroeder
August 11, 2016
When the votes for Homecoming King and Queen at John Hersey High School were finally counted, the results gave Kathleen Rafferty the chills.
Rafferty, MEd Special Education '15, is a special education teacher in the Career Life Skills program at the school, working with students who have significant needs and intellectual disabilities, and one of her students with Down Syndrome was crowned the Homecoming Queen.
“They voted for her not because she has Down Syndrome but because she is super friendly, energetic, and says hello to everyone in the hallway,” Rafferty said. “We’re creating experiences where students with significant needs can access the same high school environment as their typically developing peers.”
Rafferty’s work building these types of experiences earned her the 2015-16 RJ Hannon Service to Students award at Hersey, recognized by her peers for her efforts promoting access and inclusion for students with special education needs.
She teaches in self-contained classrooms and also team teaches a graphic arts design class in an inclusive classroom. This inclusive class includes a general education teacher who had never before team taught with a special education teacher. Rafferty says the process of designing and teaching the course has prompted other general education teachers to consider more inclusive opportunities in their own classroom.
“If you walked into the graphic art design class, you would have no idea which students have a disability and which do not,” Rafferty said. “Everyone is working on the same concept, some just need a little more visual support or step-by-step directions.”
Rafferty also coordinates extracurricular activities for students with special education needs, including a Super Buddies program that pairs students with special education needs with students from the general education population to engage in typical high school activities, such as attending football games, weekend movie nights, bowling, shopping and going out to dinner.
“One of the most meaningful parts of teaching is creating opportunities for relationships to develop between my students and their general education peers. I love seeing their positive interactions and how behaviors and attitudes change,” Rafferty said. “Everyone benefits and becomes more accepting of each other.”
She credits her years at UIC with opening her eyes to the importance of inclusion, crediting classes with Lisa Cushing, PhD, professor of special education, with equipping UIC students with the skills to plan and teach in team-teaching inclusive classrooms. Inclusion, she says, is not just a personal belief but a research-supported best practice.
Rafferty says she is still shocked she won the service to students award. Now in her fourth year at Hersey, she remembers attending the end-of-year staff breakfasts over the past three years, listening to descriptions of her co-workers who won the award and thinking how inspiring each winner is.
“I have always wanted to be the type of hardworking, dedicated, and committed teacher as each of these past recipients,” Rafferty said. “It’s humbling to receive this honor and reflects the special type of caring community we have at Hersey.”