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Article of Interest - Inclusion

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Bridges4Kids LogoSegregated Learning Hurts Social Education
by Becca Bacon Martin, Morning News, December 28, 2003
For more articles like this visit http://www.bridges4kids.org

 

What Amanda George wants most of all is to get married and have babies.

The trouble is that Amanda, although she graduated from Fayetteville High School, was never really part of the class of 2000. While she was learning basic academics, she missed out on the social opportunities that teach youngsters how to make friends and build relationships.

That's where the "self-contained classroom" concept of special education failed her, her mother believes. Even though Amanda attended some regular classes, like physical education, and ate lunch with her "typical" peers, she spent most of her time in a classroom with other special education students and never enjoyed the full extracurricular experience that is high school.

"It's not about sitting in an algebra class to learn algebra," said Kerry George, who was for many years a special education teacher at Elmdale Elementary School in Springdale. "In a perfect world, I would love for her to have had instruction in the areas she needed home economics, vocational education, computers, skills she could apply later in life but with kids who were typical. That way, she could feel like she belonged to a group.

"Kids were nice to her when she was little," George recalled. "But junior high got harder, and she didn't have a lot of friends in high school.

"She knew she was missing out on the things other kids did," George said. "I think she knows she'll always be on the outside looking in."

Amanda's experience of attending even some regular classes was a benefit won after years of court challenges that began in the 1970s and continued through the '90s. At first, officials considered it good enough just to get the special education students into the same school building.

Then came the battles over mainstreaming and the idea that school is for more than academics; it is where children learn social skills and how to be part of a community.

"Segregated learning experiences lead to segregated life experiences," said Doug Fisher, a professor at San Diego State University. "Inclusive learning experiences provide the skills to be out there and work and play and have fun and make friends and have families.

"If you want a kid at 18 or 22 to have a rich life, connected to the community, with lots of social relationships, that kid has to be around other kids. Our ability to make friends is formed when we're young."

School districts today operate under the doctrine that each child must be educated in the least restrictive environment possible, meaning a regular classroom whenever possible.

The Next Step

Fisher advocates something that goes beyond "inclusion" or "mainstreaming" for "kids with IEPs," as he calls special education students with individualized education programs. He refers to the cutting-edge philosophy as "universal design."

"We're working on the concept of universal design in curriculum so that as curriculum is planned, it's planned to include all the learners in the classroom kids with IEPs, English-as-a-second-language learners, gifted and talented learners," Fisher said. "Then it doesn't require as much reactionary modification."

Studies, Fisher said, clearly demonstrate that students with special needs blossom when exposed to their peers.

"The only way kids with disabilities are going to learn the kinds of behaviors we expect (in society) is to be in those environments," he said. "Kids with disabilities are pretty good at modeling what their peers do and if their peers are the other five kids in a one-to-six classroom, those are the behaviors they're going to model."

There isn't much hard data on how inclusion changes a regular classroom for the other students in it. But Fisher said the studies that have been done show that, thanks to the support of paraprofessionals, teachers don't spend an inordinate amount of time focused on students with special needs.

"Some days, that kid needs more help, more attention, but other days, other kids need more help," he said. "It evens out."

The Teen Years

Amanda's primary diagnosis is autism, resulting in global developmental delay. In simpler terms, she functions at about a second-grade level: She still enjoys her Barbies and Cabbage Patch dolls, and among her favorite movies are "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Lilo and Stitch."

On the other hand, Amanda is able to alphabetize and file, do some keyboarding and mail out paychecks as part of her job at Arkansas Support Network, a nonprofit agency that assists people with developmental disabilities.

"They used to look for things for her to do," George said. "Now, when a new job comes up, they say, 'I bet Amanda could do that.' She does about 15 different tasks now."

George was a student in the master's program at Syracuse University when she took Amanda as a foster child. It seemed only logical for George to bring her daughter back to Fayetteville, where she grew up, in 1987.

George expected support from the Fayetteville schools. She had studied special education at the University of Arkansas and had taught the first class specifically for autistic children at the Richardson Center, the region's first school for children with special needs. Instead, George said she was encouraged to take Amanda to Springdale with her.

"I didn't want to confuse my roles as teacher and mother," she said. "I wanted her to go to school in Fayetteville and I was willing to be flexible."

Amanda moved through various grade schools in Fayetteville until finally she landed at her home school, Asbell Elementary, for fifth and sixth grades. There, she was in a special education "resource room" part time and attended regular classes called mainstreaming part time, and that's the curriculum George wanted in junior high.

"I've never pushed for full inclusion (in regular classes), but they wanted to move her to a classroom with one teacher for six students generally reserved for the most severely disabled students, George recalled. "My biggest concern was that she would imitate everything and the next thing you know, she'd be walking with a limp! There were other options."

Disputes Arise

George wound up in a battle with the school district under the rules for due process. At the end of the two-year marathon of hearings and investigations, Amanda was moved to the one-to-six classroom.

Deborah Wilson, now director of special services for the Fayetteville School District, cannot discuss any student's specific circumstances.

"My job is to implement the law, and the law says to look at each child individually and look at (the child's) needs, and that's what we try to do," she said in answer to the question about Amanda. "Each child is different."

Wilson does agree that due process can be difficult for everyone involved, and once a decision is made by the hearing officer, it's final unless an appeal takes the case into the court system. Starting this fall, school districts and parents have another option, mediation.

Mediation, explained Nancy Mathews, a licensed psychological examiner and longtime mediator, isn't arbitration.

"In arbitration, you have somebody making a decision," she explains. "In mediation, the parties make the decision and sign off on it. It's an informal process that produces a formal result."

A conflict between school and parents can go to mediation at either's request, and Mathews said a discussion can usually be scheduled within 10 days.

Michael's Inclusion

During the difficult period when she was struggling with Amanda's placement in Fayetteville schools and the due process procedure, Kerry George often turned for support to Lynn Donald, Northwest Arkansas' original advocate for inclusion.

Donald, who is now a program manager for family support programs at Arkansas Support Network, started the battle for inclusion for her son, Michael, in 1988. Michael was injured at birth and, in his mother's words, "was so physically disabled he couldn't sit up on his own." He was also severely delayed cognitively.

"But he was a really happy kiddo," Donald recalled. "He laughed a lot, loved music, loved to be bounced around and he loved to be around other kids."

It was Michael's enjoyment of his peers, coupled with Donald's interest in "state-of-the-art" educational practices, that led her to believe Michael needed to be in the regular classroom. At that time, she explained, children with severe disabilities just stayed at the Richardson Center throughout their school careers. "But there was a big movement at that time for public schools to accept responsibility for the education of those kids," Donald said.

"On the local level, I think a lot of the impetus had to do with the expense of having those kids separated out," she said, explaining that the school districts paid for programming at the Richardson Center. "But there was also a new idea: That these are our kids and we can educate them and we should."

Michael was 7 when Donald and her husband, Joel Carver, a physician in Springdale, began to push for their son to go to music classes at the elementary school he would ordinarily attend. The school district paid for Michael to be bused to Springdale from the Richardson Center twice a week for 30 minutes of music. Then the Carvers asked for another 15 minutes a day so Michael could go to the regular classroom and then go on to music class with his peers.

"We didn't anticipate any problem," Donald recalled. "The law said he could go to school. But the school he was at didn't have any special education classes, and they were panicked. I don't know what happened behind the scenes, but Kerry George and Don Johnson, the principal at Elmdale, came to talk to us. They said he could come to Elmdale and we were so gratified by that offer."

"At first we were all kind of skeptical," Johnson recalled. "It was a learning experience for us all. It helped me learn what people can do."

Attitude Barriers

Michael celebrated his ninth birthday in June 1990 and died in October of that year. Donald said no one ever encouraged her to put Michael in an institution, but it took his short stay in public school to convince her he could have a life without her constant involvement.

That moment of epiphany happened when she and Michael were waiting to see the pediatrician. He was making a sound that meant he was cranky. A little girl from his school came across the waiting room to Michael and told his mother, "He's just tired and wants out of his wheelchair," she recalled.

"From that moment, I never looked back," Donald said. "There is no good excuse for any child being deprived of that kind of experience that simple kind of friendship. And the other kids were learning something from him, too!

"Nobody tells parents of kids with severe disabilities that they can't come to public school anymore," Donald said. "The biggest barrier kids still face is attitude."

    

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