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Small School with a Big Heart

July, 2013
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When one walks around the hallways of the “little school in the big city,” as BISS International School is known, one will notice a new fixture parked outside the Kindergarten classroom – a child’s wheelchair. If you have been part of the BISS family for a while, you might also have noticed numerous new modifications – ramps at all the entrances to the building. BISS has adapted itself and modified the building to accommodate a new Kindergarten student – Hannah.

Hannah is six years old, Chinese, and was born with spina bifida. She has no control of body movement or functions below the waist. If it weren’t for her adoptive parents, Cherrie Turner and Ed O’Malley, Hannah would probably have been left to die from exposure and neglect. But, Cherrie and Ed adopted her and she joined two older adoptive sisters in their warm and nurturing household.

Hannah’s mother Cherrie Turner faced challenges locating a school in the Beijing CBD area suitable for a child who uses a wheelchair. Ms. Turner said, “Very few schools in the Beijing CBD are purpose built schools. We opted for Beijing BISS International School as we had two other children already in attendance there and we liked the inclusive atmosphere of the ‘small school with the big heart’, which offered more individualized attention for all our children.” 

hannah1During the admissions interview, Hannah impressed BISS’ Head of School, Dr. Ettie Zilber, with her language abilities, quick mind and tenacity. She showed how she propelled herself across the floor with strong arms, which also hoisted her up to a standing position with the assistance of a table. The critical issue is the logistics of how BISS International School (with 4 floors and no elevator) could admit Hannah.  While there is no doubt that she would be able to access the curriculum, learn and thrive, BISS had to make sure that her physical needs were met.

Dr Zilber certainly wanted this admission to succeed for the sake of Hannah and her family; but she also wanted to make it work for the sake of the BISS family. The BISS Administrators believed that Hannah’s enrollment would help all the students and faculty learn numerous lessons about perspective, resilience, empathy, caring, tolerance, and much, much more.

The School Administrators discussed Hannah’s need for a full-time assistant who could carry her to and from classes, up and down the stairs and to the bathroom.  They then set about identifying the various locations where ramps would need to be built to give her wheelchair access. BISS opened its doors and welcomed their first student with special physical needs using a wheelchair for mobility.

hannah3Dr. Zilber reflected, “Now, every time I walk through the hall, my heart sings as I peek into the Kindergarten classroom with the wheelchair parked outside the door.  It does my heart good to see this poised and self-confident young child standing on her ‘robot legs,’ enjoying her successes and learning new skills.” 

Beijing BISS International School was very welcoming of Hannah and has worked hard to make a range of necessary improvements and changes to the school environment to make Hannah inclusive and equal. “BISS staff and students treat Hannah as they would any other child at BISS, and likewise we encourage Hannah to do all the things that other children do –  she just does them differently!” says Ms. Turner. 

Hannah participates actively in all school activities – singing in the choir, performing on stage, swimming, rock climbing, competing in inter-school athletic tracks and socializing with her friends. She is a natural leader and is respected by her classmates. She is what is colloquially called a ‘happy camper.’ “Good on ya’, Hannah. “You make us all proud and you have made us all better people,” Dr. Zilber remarked.


By Ettie Zilber,

Head of School, Beijing BISS International School



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