A Central New York preschool is celebrating 50 years of inclusion.
The Jowonio school gives students from different backgrounds and of different abilities the opportunity to learn from each other in one space. They say they wanted a classroom that mirrors real life. In the process, they created a family.
“It's difficult to convince yourself to take her places sometimes," said parent Brittany Cochran of her child.
There are some places Cochran's child doesn't feel comfortable going.
"Going out to the grocery store, having this big 4-year-old in this little seat that doesn't talk and maybe crying ... You can't just explain to every single person that you meet my kid has autism, she's different," Cochran said.
But school is not one of them.
“I can bring her here and I know she has assistance communicating. I know everyone understands her needs," Cochran said.
"We believe all children can learn and teaching can make the difference ... We believe difference is good," said Peter Knoblock, founder of Jowonio School.
For the past 50 years, Jowonio has been a trailblazer in inclusivity. Knoblock says the pre-school was one of the first in the country to put students of all abilities in one classroom. "We recognized the concerns that children have and we believe they can learn from each other," Knoblock said.
For the school, that also meant recognizing the concerns of parents. Parents like Rosalind Vargo, whose daughter went to Jowonio in the '80s
"She's 39 years old so it's been a few years. We wanted her to learn and we wanted everyone to give her a chance and to really not write her off," Vargo said.
Like other parents, Vargo found exactly what she was looking for at Jowonio.
"You don't come into this building and not see that," Vargo said.
She says that care also extends to parents.
"They didn't just reach Ro, they taught us how to advocate. This is what to say, this is how you support it," Vargo said.
This is why Jowonio is celebrating 50 years; those 50 years are of seeing more than just a disability and caring for the whole student.
Knoblock says students named the school after a word in the Onondaga Nation language meaning “to set free." Staff says their only hope for the next 50 years is to stay true to their mission of inclusivity and to adapt to the needs of the community as they continue to change.