August 3rd, 2010
Garner Moss has autism and when he was finishing fifth grade, his classmates made a video about him, so the new students he would meet in the bigger middle school would know what to expect. His friend Sef Vankan summed up Garner this way: â€œHe puts a little twist in our lives we donâ€™t usually have without him.â€
People with autism are often socially isolated, but the Madison public schools are nationally known for including children with disabilities in regular classes. Now, as a high school junior, Garner, 17, has added his little twist to many lives.
He likes to memorize plane, train and bus routes, and in middle school during a citywide scavenger hunt, he was so good that classmates nicknamed him â€œGPS-man.â€ He is not one of the fastest on the high school cross-country team, but he runs like no other. â€œGarner enjoys running with other kids, as opposed to past them,â€ said Casey Hopp, his coach.
Garnerâ€™s on the swim team, too, and gets rides to practice with a teammate, Michael Salerno. On cold mornings, no one wants to be first in the water, so Garner thinks itâ€™s a riot to splash everyone with a colossal cannonball. â€œThey get angry,â€ the coach, Paul Eckerle, said. â€œThen they see itâ€™s Garner, and he gets away with it. And thatâ€™s how practice begins.â€
On his smartphone, Garner loves watching YouTube videos of elevators (â€œThatâ€™s an Otis; it has an annoying fan.â€) When John Stec, a swim teammate, met him two years ago, he assumed Garner wouldnâ€™t talk much. â€œBut as soon as you say stuff, he says stuff back to you,â€ John said. â€œHe knew everyoneâ€™s name on the team even before he talked to us.â€
This is why Garnerâ€™s parents, Beth and Duncan Moss, moved to Madison from Tennessee several years ago. In Tennessee, his parents said, they were constantly battling to have Garner included in regular programs, going through four mediation disputes.
â€œAfter third grade there, I told my husband, Garner would go nowhere in life and the family would fall apart,â€ Ms. Moss said. â€œWe had to leave.â€ At the time, Ms. Moss, who stopped working as a teacher when Garner was born, was attending autism conferences. â€œI kept hearing about Madison,â€ she said.
Families with children with autism and developmental disabilities move from all over the country for the Madison schools. Kristi Jacobsen, whose son Jonathan has autism, moved from Omaha several years ago. She and her three children live here full time, while her husband, who has a financial business in Omaha, commutes back and forth.
â€œItâ€™s a sacrifice,â€ Ms. Jacobsen said. â€œBut Jonathanâ€™s made such progress. They give him every opportunity to be part of the community.â€
Lisa Pughâ€™s family moved from Wichita, Kan., for their daughter Erika, 11. A year and half ago Ms. Pugh took a job in Washington, but last month the family returned because, Ms. Pugh said, they missed Madisonâ€™s schools.
Build it and they will come. Nationally, about 12 percent of students are identified as disabled, but in Madison 17.5 percent are, according to John Harper, who oversees special education. Mr. Harper said that 88 percent of elementary students with disabilities were fully included in classes, along with 81 percent of middle school students and 63 percent of high school students. Most of the rest have a mix of general and special education classes; fewer than 5 percent are separate.
David Riley of the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative said Madison was one of the â€œbig threeâ€ leaders in successfully implementing inclusion, along with the schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., and Clark County, Nev.
While it costs Madison $23,000 to educate a child with autism (to pay for extra support staff members) versus $12,000 for a typical child, Colleen Capper, a University of Wisconsin professor, said inclusion was cheaper than segregating students.