Special-education teacher Jennifer Paolantonio, of Smithfield, standing in the Ponaganset gym on Wednesday, listened as the pledge she wrote was recited by students: “I pledge to look for the lonely, the isolated, the left out, the challenged and the bullied. I pledge to overcome the fear of difference and replace it with the power of inclusion.”

GLOCESTER — In the packed Ponaganset High School gymnasium on Wednesday, hundreds of students dressed in green — the school’s color — stood with their arms linked and recited the Ponaganset inclusion pledge.

“I pledge to look for the lonely, the isolated, the left out, the challenged and the bullied,” they called out, repeating after a teacher who spoke into a microphone.

“I pledge to overcome the fear of difference and replace it with the power of inclusion.”

This message and these kids are what it’s all about for Jennifer Paolantonio, a 35-year-old special-education teacher from Smithfield who stood awestruck in the gym as state and national leaders presented her with a $25,000 check and an educator award known as the “Oscar of teaching.”

Paolantonio, who helped draft and institute the inclusion pledge at Ponaganset, as well as shepherd a series of other efforts aimed at further integrating special-needs students with their high school peers, was completely surprised.

“This inclusion is not an 'I' — it’s not one person,” she said after receiving the award during an all-school assembly. “It is everyone in this gym. It is your older siblings. It is teachers who are no longer here.... You guys are getting recognized. I wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t for all of you.”

The prize, called the Milken Educator Award, is given to early- to mid-career education professionals who demonstrate excellence in teaching. The award, which is always a surprise to the recipient, comes with $25,000, no strings attached. 

Paolantonio, the only Rhode Island teacher to receive the award this year, said she didn’t know yet how she would spend the money, but one thing was clear.

“Back to the students,” she said. “Keeping the movement going, absolutely.”

One of Paolantonio’s achievements has been working with Special Olympics to create a unified sports program at the school that places student athletes without disabilities on the same teams as student athletes with disabilities. The school currently has unified volleyball and basketball teams and serves about 20 to 40 students, depending on the season, Paolantonio said.

State Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, who attended the ceremony, said that she was particularly touched by Paolantonio’s work and the mission of inclusion at Ponaganset High School.

“I have a 12-year-old autistic son who is the most amazing person, but as his mother, I worry about him every single day,” she said. “Will he be accepted? Will he be included? Will he have friends? Will someone make fun of him? Today, I have the pleasure of being in a school that says, ‘Those things won’t happen here.’”

Paolantonio, who works with six to 10 children in a special-education life-skills program, said that, besides the functional math and English, independent living skills and transition readiness she teaches, there’s something else she hopes to impart.

“For all students in the building, I just hope that they love themselves,” she said. “Then it’ll trickle down to everything else in life. Respect who you are and respect others around you, and be proud of it. Be proud of who you are and don't let anybody tell you otherwise.”

— mlist@providencejournal.com

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On Twitter: @madeleine_list