Donald A. Spencer
My former colleague and Director of the Monroe County Education Center, Carol Lennox Carlton, often says she loves her job because she “sees miracles happen every day.” Her words came to mind as I sat down to write some thoughts about this little school on Raisinville Street that opened 50 years ago and has since dramatically changed the lives of so many students and families.
The school that today educates approximately 140 students with moderate to severe and multiple cognitive disabilities was opened after Michigan passed Public Law 198 of 1971. This law mandated that every student with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education. Historically, this right was denied to students with cognitive impairment, then called mental retardation, until that time. One intelligence test was used to determine who would or would not be able to go to school. Because of this vulnerability, parents have been asked to keep their children at home and in the same way often to place them in an institution where they are stored away from the love and care of their families and communities. The untold heartbreak and human tragedy that resulted lingers among these families today. But make no mistake, it was the parents and families of these kids who changed the laws and created the Monroe County Education Center.
Long before PA 198 was passed, parents were reaching out to each other, civic groups, community mental health, and the middle school district to offer whatever services they could muster for their children in their homes, in long-abandoned school buildings and in church basements. With the passage of compulsory special education services, these parents organized as Mon-ARC and worked with the ISD to identify the need and pass a bond issue to build a new school that would meet the needs of their children regardless of the severity of their impairment. Thus, they changed the face of our community forever with the opening of the Monroe County Education Center.
Today, students attending the Learning Center are connected to a myriad of options and community support. Students attend classes on the grounds of Monroe County Community College and work for area businesses throughout the county. The school’s mission statement proclaims that “all students can learn and achieve personal success.” I think that’s what parents and families thought 50 years ago.
In 2001, Angela Snell, a music therapist at ISD, wrote a song to celebrate the opening of the ISD Professional Development Center. Its verses are a tribute to those whose calls led to the establishment of the educational center:
We open the doors to a whole new world, we open the doors to our future.
Open one mind and you will discover, starting with one thought,
that everyone holds the key, and everyone must do their part,
To open the doors of the neighbors. Opening cupboard doors, opening borrowed doors,
Open the school doors. New doors, every door for every mind.
I am pleased to report that the staff, students, and families at the little school on Raisinville Road are still opening doors today.
In celebration of the Monroe County Education Center’s 50th anniversary and the unveiling of student project ZotArtz, an open house will be held from 5-7 p.m. Wednesday, April 19, at the Monroe County Middle School District, 1101 S. Raisinville Road, Building C.
Donald A. Spencer was superintendent of the Monroe County Middle School District from 1999 to 2014. Prior to that, he was a teacher and Executive Director of Special Education at ISD. He lives in Monroe with his wife, Carol.