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Article of Interest - Inclusion

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Bridges4Kids LogoSpecial Ed Has No Place in Tennessee District
by Jennifer Scott-Heaslip, The Dominion Post, November 27, 2003
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There are no "special education" programs in Williamson County, Tennessee.

There are no self-contained special education classrooms and no special education teachers.

Instead, students are taught at their grade level with the help of a "Student Support Services" department that serves all students, whether they qualify for special education services or not.

If special help is needed, there are "resource rooms" or "learning labs" that are used by all students.

Monongalia County Schools uses a different approach. The school system has a special education department that offers a "continuum of services," from center-based schooling for students with less-frequently occurring disorders, such as autism, to part-time and full-time inclusion, said DeEdra Lundeen, director of special education.

Lundeen said she is not familiar with Williamson County's system but does know that Mon's special education department follows guidelines outlined in the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. Those guidelines mandates that schools offer the continuum of services, she said.

"If the experts and the teachers believe that a child can be taught in the classroom -- then for heaven's sake, we put them there with whatever supports they need," she said.

But not all students would benefit from full-time inclusion, she said, as some special-needs students do better in an alternative environment.

Michael Remus, Williamson County student support services director, contends that the student support services approach is a belief system -- a mindset. He said his county looks at special needs students asking, "What can faculty and staff do to teach chi ldren without separating them?"

With the help of "supports" such as aides, materials, equipment, peer coaches and co-teachers, he said, special needs students are able to learn with their classmates.

"We tell parents flat out -- wherever you buy your house, that's where your kids are going to go to school," Remus said.

Supplying classroom supports -- such as assistants -- helps all students struggling with any skill, whether they have special needs or not. Special education students needing occupational, physical and speech therapy services during the school day also receive that help in their classroom.

How it works

At Williamson's Oak View Elementary, a fourth-grade social studies class is learning about American Indian tribes.

At the end of the unit, most students are tested on their knowledge of several tribes and are asked to name three characteristics of each. One fourth-grade boy, however, is tested on just one tribe and two characteristics.

The teacher modified the lesson plan so the Down syndrome student could work to his ability.

It's a prime example of how inclusion is routine in Williamson County.

Student support services teachers and assistants at Oak View go from room to room to help where needed. Their duties are not limited to special needs students. Their role is to lend expertise to any student struggling in any area.

During the last school year, the two support services teachers and six assistants worked with 33 special-needs students. They also worked with 55 non-special-needs students who required reading or math help or who had behavioral issues.

"I go to all the different classrooms. I'm just an extra teacher," said student support services teacher Lynn Sawyer.

Every day, Sawyer goes to a different grade level's staff meeting and looks at teachers' lesson plans. She then develops a strategy to deliver the lesson to special needs students in the same classroom.

"In the past, they were sent out and now they're there. It's really a shared job to make sure they get what they need," she said.

Sawyer said they may see academic improvements if a child is pulled out of the classroom full time, but the social benefits wouldn't be there.

"We're raising a school of kids who aren't going to look away when they see (special needs individuals) bagging groceries," she said.

College Grove Elementary

Student support services teacher Jenny Shank has worked in inclusive and non-inclusive environments. She came to Williamson's College Grove Elementary four years ago and had previously worked in Austin, Texas.

"I felt pretty alienated from the rest of the staff" in Austin, she said. "And I only had two assistants."

At College Grove, Shank is one of two student support teachers and six assistants serving a 200-member student body.

"My kids are included pretty much all day. I think it helps their social development and interpersonal skills," Shank said. "They really enjoy being with their peers, and their classmates have a lot of respect for them."

Transitions

Replacing "special education" with "student support services" comes at an expense, Remus said. Classrooms often need to be upgraded with lifts and other handicapped-accessibility equipment. Teacher training is also sometimes an issue.

But more than finances are involved, he said. It means changing an existing system and working smarter, not hiring more people.

Teaching children of all abilities in one classroom has many benefits, Remus said.

Typically, "regular" students serve as role models and coaches for students with disabilities. In turn, there are social benefits reaped from interacting with special-needs students.

"These are our future employers, future neighbors," Remus said. "Where else do we slot kids except in schools?"

    

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