Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct name spellings of two individuals referenced in the story. Beth Davis is the former RH Dana ENF PTA president, and Jonathan Ellis is the principal of RH Dana ENF.
RH Dana Elementary School’s Exceptional Needs Facility (ENF) will celebrate its 48-year history this month as the historically separate campus looks to merge with the rest of RH Dana Elementary School in the 2023-24 school year.
The May 25 event will be an opportunity for the community, students, alumni and their families to join together and remember RH Dana ENF’s history, with a slideshow sharing photos from 1975 to 2023.
Held on the RH Dana ENF preschool playground, the event will also feature food, beverages, live music and face painting, said Beth Davis, the former RH Dana ENF PTA president.
“Lots of tears and a lot of people,” current ENF PTA President Lori Brown chimed in. “We even have a principal coming in from Arizona, people returning that we haven’t seen in a long time.”
Davis added that the event will be a time for “everyone to get together, socialize and remember all the things that we put on, a lot of events here.”
The exceptional needs campus will merge with RH Dana to provide a more inclusive experience for both campuses’ populations, RH Dana ENF Principal Jonathan Ellis explained.
“ENF is a very unique school; schools like this went away a long time ago for logical purposes,” Ellis said. “Our students should be allowed to be included with the general education population just like everybody else.”
Ellis explained that the ENF campus is one of the last in Orange County that he’s aware of that’s entirely special education.
“This is a good thing,” Ellis said. “It’s a long time coming for our K-5 students being merged with RH Dana Elementary School.”
Davis added that the merge makes inclusion a lot more feasible.
“Every child has the right to be a part of their community, school and have inclusive opportunities regardless of disability and so, the opportunities to be included are very minimal as our school stands now,” Ellis said.
Ellis noted that both campuses’ students will benefit from the merger.
“Our students definitely benefit from any time they have the opportunity to be around typical peers, to learn from what we’re trying to teach them, whether its academic, social interaction, just basic play or student skills, independence, all of those things,” Ellis said.
The general education students will benefit from understanding that “everybody has individual differences, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. We’re just all working on acceptance and supporting each other,” Ellis said.
Brown, who taught at RH Dana before retiring last year, noted that the merge is “really good for the (general education) kids too. It takes away a lot of the fear of the unknown, and we can answer questions … it’s a positive.”
After the merge, the former ENF campus will become a new early childhood center for pre-kindergarten and transitional kindergarten students.
“So that’s part of this merge as well, to help have a true diagnostic opportunity to appropriately place kids from three years on up,” Ellis said.
The Capistrano Unified School District’s Supporting Early Academic Language Skills, or SEALS, program will move over to the new early childhood center.
“That is our least restrictive special-ed program in the district for pre-k students, and we’re going to have those classes come over,” Ellis said. “We’re also going to have a diagnostic classroom come over, it’s called Ready, Set, Grow, and that’s open four days a week.”
“When you assess children starting at 3, and that little, everything, preschool in general itself and the foundations of it are play-based for the most part,” Ellis continued. “When they need a classroom, an area to mimic what they would be doing during the normal day or what they do at home with their parents, they play with them and do their assessments at the same time.”
Most of the classrooms at the early childhood center will be for special education students, Ellis explained.
This is the third time in ENF’s 48-year history that a merge with RH Dana has been attempted. Brown and Davis both noted that they’re feeling prepared to finally have the two campuses come together.
“The staff is open because many of the staff, like Mrs. Brown who recently retired, were still here the last time they merged and I know our kinder teacher and a couple of teachers over at RH Dana are looking forward to getting back to doing some of those activities they used to do,” Ellis said.
“Just because we’re merging doesn’t mean that things that have worked in the past should go away,” Ellis continued.
Brown added that joint events with the two campuses have always been positive.
Over the years, Brown has had previous students come up to her in the community and tell her about the impact that joint events with the ENF campus left on them.
The RH Dana campus has been working on merge activities over the last year, Ellis explained.
“They already did an Ability Awareness Week,” Ellis said. “Last month, the counselor went around and talked about disability awareness.”
On May 19, the school will host an Ability Awareness Day, “one more activity where parents, students and staff are involved to help open minds and get prepared for this merge,” Ellis said.
“But overall, it’s been very positive,” Ellis said. “We’ve met with the RH Dana Elementary PTA and our PTA, and they’re really excited. The RH Dana Elementary librarian has purchased books specifically to help students understand students with unique needs.”
Ellis emphasized that “everybody deserves the opportunity to feel welcome in their community, as well as their home school, and I think this is one more step towards the norm that should have taken place a long time ago.”
“This is really going to help (parents) connect with other people in the community and have their child be a part of everything else that typically goes on at a (general-education) school,” Ellis said.
For more information on the upcoming RH Dana ENF celebration, visit the Evite.