North County Outlook - Community newspaper serving Marysville, Arlington, Tulalip, Smokey Point, Lakewood

Education - A process of Living that Never Ends


In 1897, John Dewey wrote that education is "a process of living and not a preparation for future living." I don't think Dewey meant that the future is unimportant, but that the seeds of a quality future are embedded in a quality present. Education is not something that we get once and for all like filling up a bottle, but a way of living that is characterized by engagement, responsibility, curiosity, creativity, compassion, etc. It is what we hope all our children experience in school - a rich and fulfilling way of life that they take responsibility for continuing as they become adults.

Students with developmental disabilities, however, are rarely able to take full responsibility for their own lives and learning. Many never develop beyond the mental age of young children. Can you imagine giving a four or five-year-old a diploma and wishing them well as we turn them out on the street? Of course not, and yet that is effectively what we are doing when we end educational services for students with developmental disabilities at age 21.

People with developmental disabilities can lead rich, productive, and happy lives just like the rest of us, but they need our support to maintain that quality "process of living" Dewey refers to. They need dependable structures and opportunities to help them stay engaged, curious, growing, safe, and connected to the larger community.

There are many generous, compassionate people and organizations in our community reaching out to people with developmental disabilities, and we can all be very grateful for that. But quality services are scattered, often erratic, and exist on the charitable good will of providers. This is not enough. We need one institution that can say "the buck stops here." Quality of life and community participation are human rights that are too important to leave to the whims of charity.

I believe that "one institution" must be our schools. Schools are public institutions tasked with developing that "process of living" marked by engagement, responsibility, continuous growth, and active citizenship. People with developmental disabilities need lifelong support to maintain this. As we grapple to fully fund education in our state, let's include this moral commitment to those who need our help the most. Money currently going to DSHS services that are often confusing and hard-to-access can be diverted to schools so that the ball is never dropped and accountability is clear.

If the power suddenly went out in our community or we lost access to clean drinking water, an emergency would be declared until the crisis was resolved. What would happen if one of the few programs for people with developmental disabilities disappeared? Absolutely nothing. That is the difference between charity and a public responsibility, and that is why lifelong services for people with developmental disabilities must be guaranteed by law.

By making our schools accountable for this, we are guaranteeing access to services, protecting the human and civil rights of our citizens, and humanizing our communities. No longer would parents have to leave their jobs to care for their adult children when they turn 21. No longer would adults with developmental disabilities be consigned to lives of loneliness, isolation, and uselessness. No longer would mainstream society miss out on the precious gifts that people with developmental disabilities have to offer.

People with developmental disabilities need us in their lives. But I believe even more that we need them in ours.

Jim Strickland is a teacher at Marysville-Pilchuck High School and an advocate of Student Centered Education. He can be reached at


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