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Santa Rosa preschool celebrates World Down Syndrome Day

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On a drizzly Wednesday morning inside a classroom off Airway Drive in Santa Rosa, a crowd of preschoolers clambered to grab seats on carpet squares and tiny wooden chairs.

The Lattice Educational Achievement Preschool kids were set to have an assembly led by the moms of two of their classmates: James O’Leary and Annalise Hunter, both 4, and both clad in blue and gold for the occasion.

Wednesday was World Down Syndrome Day, held each March 21 to raise awareness about what it means to have Down syndrome and what causes it: a triplication of the 21st chromosome.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one of every 700 children is born with Down syndrome, like James and Annalise were. That’s about 6,000 babies born in the U.S. annually with the chromosomal disorder.

The blue and gold colors are part of a national Down Syndrome awareness campaign, and mothers Larkin O’Leary and Jessica Hunter thought it would be the perfect opportunity to talk to their children’s classmates about what makes James and Annalise different.

“(We want to show) how easily it can be accepted in a community when kids from the very start are introduced to it, are taught about differences in strengths and how we all have them,” O’Leary said.

Both the O’Leary and Hunter families chose LEAP for its inclusive classrooms, which place James and Annalise alongside their peers in a normal learning environment, with special help when they need it.

While some parents prefer to place their children in special day classes, inclusive classes are becoming more readily available, said Michele Rogers, executive director of the Rohnert Park-based Early Learning Institute, a nonprofit that supports families with young children.

“It can be good for a child with Down syndrome, but it’s also good for (other children in the class),” she said. “It broadens their view of how many different people there are in the world, and how each person impacts their community.”

That understanding is what O’Leary and Hunter aimed to teach the few dozen preschoolers, using different exercises to show the difficulties kids with Down syndrome face.

First, O’Leary read “We’ll Paint the Octopus Read,” a book about a little girl whose baby brother is diagnosed with Down syndrome. Then, the students were asked to try to speak with marshmallows in their mouths, to show how difficult talking can be for children with Down syndrome, who typically have weaker mouth muscles. In another exercise, the kids tried drawing while wearing socks on their hands to limit their fine motor skills, which develop more slowly in children with Down syndrome.

Most gave up on that idea pretty quickly.

“It’s too hard,” declared 3-year-old Parker McMillian.

Leah Alman, a teacher at LEAP, explained that was the whole point.

“Sometimes things are hard for other friends when they aren’t hard for us,” she said. “So next time James is coloring, should we help him?”

The preschoolers agreed they probably should.

“Part of the mission of our program is not only for kids with special needs to be able to be around their peers, but for our children without a disability to understand that we’re all a little different,” said Nancy Alcott, executive director of Lattice Educational Services, which runs LEAP.

“The mission is for all of our kids to get a better understanding of each other, so it’s not just our kids with special needs that are going to benefit, but all kids are going to benefit from inclusion.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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