Acting Assistant Secretary of Education Yudin and Nashville Mayor Dean visited the Susan Gray School for Children to see its inclusive classes and to hear first-hand from families and teachers about this model high-quality, evidence-based early learning program.
When Michael Yudin is surrounded by young children with and without disabilities, it is evident that his commitment to early learning is a true passion. On September 11, Yudin, acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), visited the Susan Gray School at Peabody College to meet with parents, teachers, and community partners. His visit was part of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s Back-to-School bus trip, which is showcasing innovative, promising practices in American education.
Peabody College Dean Camilla Benbow welcomed Yudin and guests. “Peabody College has always been about enhancing human potential,” she said, “and it’s always been about children.”
For over four decades, the Susan Gray School (SGS) has served young children ages 1-5 in inclusive classrooms. Its mission is service, training, research, and demonstration. Founded as part of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, the School had the first national model demonstration project to include typically developing children in educational settings with children with disabilities, helping to establish inclusive early education as a national recommended practice.
At the outset of his visit, Yudin stressed the importance of “all children getting off to the right start” and the need for early intervention services and supports for children with disabilities. “Too many don’t have access,” he said. “We need to do better.”
Family involvement in early learning was the theme of the day. Parents Alecia Talbott and Christine Sartain spoke of what their children and families have gained from their experiences. Sartain, chair of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Community Advisory Council, described the School as “a home for us,” which supported their children’s development and prepared them to be advocates for their own children and for other families.
Yudin toured the School, along with Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. Other guests included Joey Hassell, assistant commissioner of Special Populations, Tennessee Department of Education; Cynthia Croom, executive director of Metro Action Commission with responsibility for Head Start programs; Colleen Thomas, Metro Nashville Public Schools; and Kathy Floyd-Buggs, director of community services for Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN). The tour was led by SGS faculty co-directors Ann Kaiser and M.L. Hemmeter, and Kiersten Kinder and Michelle Wyatt, SGS site director and assistant director.
Elise McMillan, co-director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, moderated a roundtable discussion with parents, teachers, and community leaders who shared their personal experiences on the value of early education and family involvement.
Yudin asked the roundtable members what was working and not working, and what the challenges were.
Parent Alecia Talbott said that having early educators encourage parents to have high expectations was a good example of what works well.
Sartain, whose daughter has Down syndrome, agreed: “Each child is celebrated. Before Lake was born, I didn’t realize how important this would be. It is such a blessing to get this vision of what is possible at the beginning.”
Croom, who provides leadership for Metro Head Start programs, emphasized that early learning is “not about telling but modeling. Children need to see and touch. And teachers need to see and touch what inclusive early learning can be, to see what it can do.”
Sartain identified the “culture of separateness” of special education within general education as one of the challenges. “We need to work together to shift that expectation,” she said.
Yudin concluded the roundtable, emphasizing the need for multi-tiered systems of supports within a research-based framework to benefit all children.
Pictured above: (top) Acting Assistant Secretary of Education Michael Yudin visits children in a Susan Gray School inclusive early childhood classroom (bottom) Nashville Mayor Carl Dean