Lighthouse preschool blends children of varying abilities into one classroom

CHICAGO (WLS) -- More educators are recognizing the importance of early-childhood education, beginning with preschool.

The proverb says, "Train us a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it."

At the Chicago Lighthouse, they are taking that message to heart, teaching tolerance to young minds by opening young hearts.

At first glance, they look like any other preschool class - playing, laughing and having fun with each other. But this school is different. It's called a "blended preschool" with youngsters of varying abilities.

"We have six visual-impaired students out of the 19 and you will see some of the kids without visual impairments kind of looking out for them," said Terry Longo, Chicago Lighthouse principal. "And there are kids with other disabilities and they are more careful around those kids."

It started two years ago as part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's "preschool for all'' initiative, helping young minds develop empathy and understanding of people who may be different from themselves.

"That will help us instill sensitivity and respect for diversity," Longo said.

For 5-year-old Madison, there's an added bonus. Although the little princess does not have a visual impairment, her mother does. Mom says the school helps the two of them relate even more.

"My daughter is able to see her mom's vision through her peers," said Dawn Hale-Maberry.

Teachers say it's amazing to watch the kids look out for each other in this environment. At this young age, they simply want to make sure their little friends are OK.

"Like one of the boys needs to cover his eye. One of the girls will go and get his eye patch. They want to really help. They really, they haven't come from a negative place," said Lisa Karpas, a teacher.

The school is free, but there are certain qualifiers, like income and disability. And even though 4-year-old Jahon does not have an impairment, the Lighthouse preschool has already made a world of difference in his life.

"Because I have family that's special needs. I have a brother that is deaf and mute. I wanted to put on him the qualities of that and show him the things he can do," said Sylvia Brown, Jahon's mother.

"It's great to see this philosophy that you had about blending the disabled and non-disabled population at this age and seeing the results that you hope will bear fruit later in life," Longo said.

Tuesday, June 30 is graduation day for 11 youngsters in the preschool program. They will have a full ceremony before heading off to kindergarten. So that means there will be opening in the Lighthouse preschool. For more information, visit http://chicagolighthouse.org/preschool.

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