The Community at North Shows That Their School is One of Acceptance and Inclusion


Credit to Ankita Pandurangi

The special education class in room one learns about money. They learn about how to save, spend and use money in their lives and how their money affects them.

In the halls of North are hundreds of faces with hundreds of stories, each one unique from the other. Each face sees the world differently, thinks differently and has a different perspective on life. The students and staff of Francis Howell North recognize the uniqueness of their peers and the value of their character. From students nine years ago to students graduating this year, the community of North works to make the school feel welcoming to all.

The Homecoming dance of 2012 was like no other. For one particular student, it was a night he would never forget. Singing and dancing along with his friends to his favorite singer, Elvis Presley, was a highlight of the dance. But the most memorable moment of that night nine years ago was when alumni Cody Fingers was crowned Homecoming King. Voted by his peers, Cody felt at home amongst friends he had been with since preschool. It was a shining moment for Cody and for other students like him with developmental disabilities. That night made him feel a part of the FHN community. His mother, and English teacher at North, Diane Fingers recalls the night that Cody was crowned king. 

“I was really thrilled for him, but I was really just in awe of the North kids who contrived to make that happen,” Diane said. “It was something that his peers had been talking about doing since they were in elementary school together.”

At the time of his birth, Cody was diagnosed with Down syndrome, also known as Trisomy 21. From that point on, his heart would touch the lives of those around him. He progressed through the Francis Howell School District with the friends he would be beside until he graduated. 

“He was more than comfortable,” Diane said. “He was bullied, he was picked on, but he had a group of kids who watched over him like angels. His group of peers, the entire class of 2013. Many of them had been with him since preschool and were genuinely accepting of Cody.”

As for Cody’s time at North, he was embraced by his peers and loved by the general school population. His caring and loving personality made him a joyful presence at North. After he graduated in 2013, Cody enjoyed spending his time at Blank Canvas Studios, an art-based program for individuals with developmental disabilities. Last year, Cody was unable to attend Blank Canvas because of the pandemic. According to Diane, Blank Canvas has reopened its doors and Cody will be excited to return soon.

While Cody no longer attends North, the inclusive environment he left behind is still apparent today. Through the years, North has remained an accepting place for all students. Jennifer Barry, a special education teacher at Francis Howell North feels that students with learning disabilities feel accepted among their fellow students at North. Life for Barry is never boring as she says.  An​​ intense game of Uno raged as Barry explained how students with developmental disabilities are represented at North. 

“Did somebody win?” Barry asked. “I won,” junior Max Schnettgoecke, a student of Barry’s, said. “Does anybody know how to shuffle? If you don’t know how to shuffle, put them down on the table and spread them all around and mix them up. Max can take some and he can mix them up. Ricky can take some and mix them up,” Barry said. The game continued on for numerous rounds, each student participating racking up wins. 

“I’m sorry about that. Well, I think [students with mental disabilities] have opportunities to participate in any extracurricular things, things that are going on at the school,” Barry said. “During Knight Time, we’ve been a part of the contests that they’ve run. The other teachers who [our students] are in class work with us. We have a good understanding, typically, between the teachers and the parents and special education teachers on how to best support [them]. So, most of the general education teachers are very welcoming of our students in our classes and are willing to help them succeed in their classes.”

Students in special education classes are welcome to participate in all things North. This past year, the program has seen students in an array of extracurricular activities at North, such as Iron Knights, cheerleading and more. Other students enjoy getting to experience a high school experience from the sidelines. Ricky Alderson is a sophomore at North. Painting is one thing Alderson enjoys and his favorite class is art where he gets to express himself. For Alderson, his teachers are what make all the difference 

“I feel heard,” Alderson said. “They’re nice, they help the students. Like when they write work on the board so we can see.” 

Barry, as well as other special education teachers, hope to prepare their students for the future by having classes specifically designed to prepare them for life beyond North. 

“What I would want other students to know about is that [students with mental disabilities are] teenagers just like them,” Barry said. “They are striving for things after high school, they have goals and things that they are working towards.”

For students with developmental disabilities, their futures all look different. For Cody, he has a life where he can express his artistic talents. For Alderson, his future may look a bit different. 

“I want to move to California,” Alderson said. “Me and my friends want to move there together.” 

Whether students move across the country or stay homebound, the universal message from the community of Francis Howell North is one of acceptance and inclusion.  

“I think the vast majority are viewed as just students,” Diane said. “Just like any difference we need to acknowledge the value of everyone, whether it’s a differing ability, or whatever else.  Once you’re out in the real world, you’re going to run into tons of people who aren’t identical to you in so many very different ways. Just be human, a good human.”