With its specially trained staff and nurturing environment for students with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other disabilities, the Henderson K-12 Inclusion School in Dorchester has been beloved for decades by families for its special instruction philosophy, where students with disabilities learn together with peers without disabilities.
But according to a number of Henderson parents, the coveted, high-quality environment so many cherish is at risk — a problem they blame on an inattentive central office and a leadership vacuum that’s let understaffing and safety concerns at the school fester, while assigning families to the school who weren’t invested in its mission.
“For many years the Henderson was the model for inclusion across the country. It was so successful [that] they had visitors from all over the world wanting to see … how to replicate it,” Bethany Moffi, a Henderson parent and a member of the school’s governing board, said during the public comment period at the Boston School Committee meeting on March 15.
Lately, though, there’s been “an exodus of families, teachers, and providers who are deeply committed to the mission of inclusion,” said Moffi — one of five parents who raised alarms about the school at the meeting. “People who have been there for years that left because of the neglect and lack of oversight by the district to identify and invest in strong leadership committed to our model of inclusion and to curb the violence at our school.”
The Henderson is an innovation school, which means that it is granted certain decision-making independence from the Boston Public Schools, such as curriculum and staffing. And one of the pillars of its inclusion model is that there is one general education teacher and one special education teacher per core classroom.
But another parent, Michelle Carmell, told School Committee members that evening that she removed her fifth-grader in September because she was in a classroom with an unlicensed teacher — “entirely unlicensed, not even emergency licensed,” she said. Carmell said there are “three classrooms with only emergency special education licensure and three classrooms with no specialized licensure at all” in fifth grade and below. According to Carmell, who is also on the school’s governing board, 20 percent of teachers in fifth grade and below are operating on emergency licenses.
This isn’t the first time the Henderson school’s community has spoken up about its concerns. Last summer, a Dorchester Reporter news article described parents’ worries about the school “slipping into chaos.” In my own interviews with current and former Henderson parents and special education advocates it’s clear the situation hasn’t improved. “Any communication we have I am labeled as the angry parent,” Courtney Feeley Karp said at the School Committee meeting. “I’m at my wit’s end, as is everyone else.”
What happened? Without question, an inflection point occurred in the fall of 2021 when Patricia Lampron, the beloved principal of the Henderson’s upper campus, was viciously attacked by a 16-year-old student. Since then, multiple safety episodes have taken place: a blind student allegedly assaulted in a bathroom; an incident in which two teachers got hurt while trying to break up a fight between two middle schoolers; a fight between two students, where one of them reportedly used a Taser gun; and, just two weeks ago, three students ended up at the hospital after ingesting marijuana edibles.
Laurette LeRouge — who was 16 at the time of the alleged attack — was charged last year for the assault on Lampron.
Tom McKeever is the president of SEIU Local 888, whose members include more than 300 Boston school administration and support staff, like school secretaries. He told me that the Henderson consistently comes up in complaints from the union’s members. “One of our members has been out on workers’ compensation” leave for safety issues at the school, he said.
Of course, the Henderson is not the only school with student safety issues. But parents fear the school’s current leadership isn’t able to cope.
Max Baker, a BPS spokesperson, said the district has “heard the concerns of our families and there is a team actively working to provide extra support to our young people.” The district is “conducting a needs assessment of the Henderson” with a particular focus on professional development support for newer educators, Baker said. He admitted there are some staffing challenges at the Henderson and said an additional school administrator with inclusion experience has been assigned to the school in the past month.
It’s a sad turn of events for the school named after Bill Henderson, a pioneer educator who went blind during his time at BPS. In 1989, he became the principal of the school that would eventually be named after him; the rename happened in 2009 upon his retirement (Lampron succeeded him). Originally an elementary school, it became a K-12 innovation school in 2014. Currently, there are about 860 students enrolled across both of the Henderson’s two Dorchester campuses.
Henderson figured out early on that for an inclusion setting to truly function for everybody, students with disabilities have to feel welcome by everyone in the building. It’s not entirely about money, either. “If the heart isn’t there, the skills and even the resources don’t matter,” Henderson told Schoolyard News in 2019.
Dianne Lescinskas’s daughter, now 26, has intellectual disabilities and started at the Henderson back when it was a K-5. Lescinskas was one of the parents who fought for the school to be expanded to a K-12, so parents like her “have a choice.” Walking into the Henderson for the first time, she remembered, “we felt like this is where we belong. It’s hard to describe. ... It was more of a feeling: kindness and acceptance from everyone in the building.”
If it hadn’t been for the Henderson, her daughter would have been in a substantially separate classroom, Lescinskas said. “Learning alongside general education students, she would push herself to do more, she’d be inspired by her nondisabled peers, who became coaches and mentors for her.” Lescinskas’s daughter works three jobs now, including in a flower shop and a hair salon.
Multiple studies have shown that an inclusion model is advantageous to all students, not just those with special needs. But there must be full buy-in from families — including those with students who have no disabilities — for an inclusion model like the Henderson’s to succeed. Parents argue that the Henderson’s model is showing cracks now partly because the district is placing students there who didn’t choose the Henderson.
According to figures provided by Baker, there is some truth to that. Since school year 2019-20, there have been more than 40 students administratively assigned to the Henderson’s upper grades. Those are students who didn’t get their preferred school when enrolling at BPS. That figure doesn’t include students who come in mid-school year. As for the Henderson’s 113 educators, 26 hold at least one emergency license, Baker said.
If BPS is serious about inclusion, the district better listen to Henderson parents who worry that without a change of course, the model that has served so many students well over the decades could disappear for good.