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erikaDuring my pregnancy I had all the dreams and wonderings of what my child would be like, as all parents do. I had heard the trials and tribulations of other parents ahead of me on their journey of raising children. Then we received the news that our first child, Amara, would be born with health challenges and an extra 21st chromosome causing Down Syndrome.  Our immediate focus was on her health and survival. We had frequent doctor appointments, hospital stays, and therapists helping us through the early years. It was easy to get lost and loaded down with the day-to-day, and it felt impossible to dream and wonder about the future.  

At age 3, when Amara entered the school system and a few of our health challenges had stabilized, we were able to start looking at and wondering about what we wanted our daughter’s future to look like. Around that time we created a vision statement to help guide our path through Amara’s education, to act as our “lighthouse.” It keeps us on course through turbulent waters, and reminds us to look ahead even when it feels like we are surviving a current storm. At that time we decided an inclusive education was important to our family. We wanted Amara to be part of a community, and to experience friendships and relationships with people of all abilities and interests. 

We visited many schools, both public and private, looking for an environment that would align with our vision for Amara’s education. When City Neighbors Hamilton opened right down the street from us, we felt we had found our right fit.  Amara began kindergarten at CNH, and as with all children and all schools, there were a few growing pains. We had to work as a team to make sure Amara was getting what she needed while also interacting and participating as part of the classroom community. It was nice not having to answer the question “Why is she here?” like I had so many times before at other schools. It allowed us to get right to the work that needed to be done and focus on problem-solving ways to meet Amara where she was at that time–all while including her in classroom lessons and activities. 

There have been many moments at CNH where I have felt the success of Amara’s inclusive education. There are school projects, play dates with friends, and the joy of hearing Amara read out loud for the first time. One time in particular stands out to me, a time where I just felt something click. Amara loves to dance, and she frequently will dance around at home. We had watched in prior years during the school’s annual Winter Arts showcase while Amara’s classmates danced on stage and Amara stood in the center like a deer in headlights, afraid to move and struggling to keep up–and every year hoping she would come out of her shell and perform with her peers. I vividly remember hearing Beyonce’s “Freedom” playing and seeing Amara come out on stage. She struggled, but she kept up with the steps and danced through the whole song with her class. I had to stifle my ugly cry from coming out. I was so proud of her hard work to overcome her fear and difficulty with learning the dance steps.  I shared an embrace with the principal and many other parents who had watched Amara’s early struggles and who also shared in the joy of her success that day. 

Erika Coughlin, Parent & Board President, City Neighbors Hamilton

levar michaelAn important aspect of educational enrichment is the capacity of students to positively engage with one another and cultivate a strong sense of communal attachment and social awareness. These attributes are the building blocks to developing a responsible and proactive citizenry. Like many City Neighbors Hamilton students, our little one was overly excited to begin this new school year as a first-grader. While to her the summer was long and absent of the friendly educators and staff she has become accustom to, that solitary disposition was alleviated by a constant engagement with her community, CNH friends, and classmates throughout the summer. Whether by participating in play-dates, running into each other at local events, or having fun at the Swan Lake pool, many of our CNH children stayed actively involved in local activities which helped to strengthen their attachment to our community and one another.

While reflecting on the importance of this type of social and community bonding, it quickly dawned on me just how important it is for our children to participate in this type of civic engagement in order to grow a firm understanding of others and the many diverse aspects of society. When we develop an appreciation for the community and people around us, we then become more inclined to support and advocate on behalf of those communities and people. But while it is important to grow interpersonal communal attachments, it is also important to supplement that with a healthy dose of civic and historical perspective. After all, how will our children become the change-makers we want them to be if they have no historical perspective or understanding of societal power structures?

It was this curiosity which led me to inquire about the civic and social education of our children when conversing with Ms. LaShawn during Meet the Teacher day. I was excited to hear that history and civics was a priority and there was a plan to have elements incorporated into the first-grade curriculum. Moreover, Ms. LaShawn also plans to include walks to the local library and reading sessions with senior citizens at Oak Crest Retirement Community. I believe this is a great first step toward exposing our children to the society around them and the components of what forms a strong community. If there was ever an example of the consequences inflicted upon a society which lacks civic and historical perspective, it would be the times we are currently living in now. Recently, Max Boot of the Washington Post wrote an article entitled, America’s ignorance of history is a national scandal . He does an amazing job highlighting the societal pitfalls associated with not knowing or understanding history. As the famous quote states, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” This is why it fills my heart with joy to know that our CNH students, thanks to awesome teachers, are on the path to becoming responsible, knowledgeable, and altruistic young citizens.

LeVar Michael, Parent, City Neighbors Hamilton



“Why do you teach?” Back to school. Day one.  Professional Development. A familiar scene. As we gathered in a circle of introduction we were asked to answer this question. There was great variety in the answers:


“It’s a family tradition.”

“I’m giving back.”

“I’m a science geek.”

“I love kids.”

“For the money.” (just kidding)

All great answers that helped me get to know my coworkers a little better. But all short and sweet. My answer was no different.

Alas, time to get into the classroom to unpack, move furniture, set up and begin to check off the many items on my list required to prepare. Suddenly, I was hit by a terrible feeling of anxiety. I was completely overwhelmed! Mandates, curriculum, updates, data collection, assessments, funding, etc. etc.!  The thousands of things that teachers have to do spewed from the back of my mind to the forefront–system overload! I literally had to sit and wipe tears from my eyes. DAY ONE! I am not going to make it through the school year.

“Why do you teach?” The question came back to me. As I contemplated, I started to picture the faces in those seats I had just arranged. I saw their smiles, grimaces, thoughtful expressions, and even their tears. I recalled their dreams, accomplishments, struggles, and talents. I remembered my why. Not the short and simple version I had just given my colleagues. The real why:

They deserve it!

Every kid deserves a chance to improve their personal circumstance, to be inspired to strive for better, and have the tools to succeed. They deserve to create their own definition of success and follow their passions in accomplishing this goal. Students deserve to be taught skills to communicate, problem solve, collaborate, and have a voice in whatever career fields they choose. Children deserve the opportunity to preserve humanity. Our youth deserve assistance in becoming compassionate, active citizens in their own communities, states, country, and globally. They deserve it simply because they are kids!

“Why do you teach?” Ask yourself this question. Take your time to answer, really answer. Write it down. Laminate it! Post it where you can see it daily. On those tough days, when you are wondering if you will make it through another school year, reflect upon it. Bring yourself back to your reasoning. Remember your purpose.

What is your why? 

Michelle Tavares, Special Educator, City Neighbors High School


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