The Halo Club

Kathryn Benton, a 12-year-old afflicted with Angelman syndrome, cannot talk. But the special friendship she has with Emily Faber, a gifted fourth-grader from McKinney, speaks volumes.

When Kathryn persists in stealing food, Emily warns her: "Do you want me to get Miss Fobb?" a reference to the cafeteria aide with whom Kathryn sits in "time out" if she misbehaves. Kathryn smiles mischievously, but ultimately listens to her friend. She thumps her hand to her chest and gives the American Sign Language sign for "sorry."

After Kathryn has devoured a chocolate dessert of her own, her face is a blur of brown streaks. Kathryn's eating habits make some of the children in the class uncomfortable, her teacher confides. But Emily doesn't mind. "Kathryn, wipe your mouth," she reminds her friend before it's time to leave.

After Kathryn is taken on a bathroom break by an aide, she rejoins the class for science. Today's assignment is measuring trees, and Mrs. Davie arms each student with a ruler, tape measure, and chart. Kathryn accompanies Emily to a small crape myrtle and assists her by holding one end of the ruler while Emily measures the tree's height.

The wind is whipping through the trees, and the girls have a hard time holding onto the ruler. Emily glances up at Kathryn, whose tongue is hanging out as she concentrates. "Look," Emily says, "your drool is blowing in the wind."

Kathryn and Emily burst out laughing.

Three years ago, when the McKinney School District offered middle-school principal Isiah Joshua the plum position of becoming the principal of the district's brand-new elementary school, he told his bosses he would only work at the school if there was a special-education program on the campus.

A jovial man who stands in the hall at the end of each school day dispensing hugs and high fives as the youngsters file by, Joshua says, "I really believe a well-rounded school is made up of the different kinds of people we have in our society. Learning how to work with people who are different is an important skill for these children to learn."

At Slaughter Middle School, where Joshua had been principal for three years, the special-education class catered to some of the most severely handicapped children in the district--mostly nonverbal, nonmobile children. It was called the basic-skills class: Here the children learned the tasks of every-day living--like brushing their teeth, using the toilet, and tying their shoes. For these children, the simplest task can be painstaking to learn, taking a year or longer to master.

Joshua decided to take this class of children with him to Glen Oaks, where they were a startling contrast to the well-scrubbed, Gap-clad offspring of Collin County's most gilded community. Joshua does not believe that handicapped children should just be placed on a campus, inside some classroom to be peered at through glass or across a crowded lunchroom as in a human zoo. He believes they should interact with the regular students as often as possible.

"This teaches tolerance and humanity," Joshua says. "And since much of learning is based on modeling behavior, the special-ed children learn what is normal behavior."

His own beliefs dovetailed with a national and statewide movement in special education called "inclusion"--bringing handicapped children into regular classrooms as frequently as possible when teachers and parents are willing. For some students, it means participating in classes like art or music or gym, where their presence is not too disruptive. Higher-functioning handicapped children--Downs syndrome children with high IQs, for instance--often spend the entire day with a regular class.

In increasingly financially strapped school districts, the high cost of special education--which can require a student-to-teacher ratio as low as one-to-one--has come under scrutiny. But Joshua and other educators strenuously defend these programs--not just for what they do for the students in them, but for what they bring to the student body as a whole.

A few months ago, several parents and students, including Kathryn Benton's and Emily Faber's parents, made a special presentation to the McKinney school board about the important, though often intangible, benefits of the costly special-ed programs in the district. One of the parents from Glen Oaks told the school board that although the educators might think they are spending a lot of money on just eight children, they should not ignore the domino effect the program has throughout the school in teaching lifelong tolerance and comfort levels.

Tolerance and acceptance are lofty, and hardly simple, goals for children to learn. But no one--not Joshua or special-education teacher Holly Clemons or Kathryn Benton's mother, Paula, for that matter--expected, or could have predicted, the deep devotion that blossomed between two children as different as Kathryn and Emily.

"The relationship between Emily and Kathryn is something I just can't explain," says Debbie Faber, Emily's mother. "Emily views Kathryn as her very best friend. And I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that these two girls talk."

"The relationship they have is like no other between a special-ed student and a regular-ed student," says Clemons. "The reaction--the thrill--they both have when they see each other is constant. It is a true friendship. It has been one of the most gratifying aspects of my career."

Emily Faber has trouble falling asleep. She spends at least an hour rummaging through her closet deciding what to wear tomorrow and how she will fix her long, lustrous blond hair. The next day--a Tuesday--there is a Special Olympics regional track-and-field event in Waxahachie. Kathryn will be competing.

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