Inclusion For All
by Steven Carter, The Oregonian, February 17, 2004
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On a chilly
Saturday morning at Roosevelt High School, Michael Remus replays
a theme he has delivered throughout his career to 21 teachers
gathered for a school improvement workshop: "If I walk into a
classroom and the kids are doing fractions," he says, pacing in
front of the teachers, "I want to know what the special
education kids are doing to learn fractions. The curriculum
needs to be linked to everybody."
Remus has been spreading the message of inclusion for
special-needs children to parents, administrators, principals
and teachers since he arrived in November to oversee special
education for Portland Public Schools.
Remus wants children with disabilities educated in the same
classrooms with the same curriculum as other students, whenever
possible. That is what he did in Tennessee, which he left last
fall, and that is what he intends for Portland. He has told the
staff that most self-contained classrooms for special-education
students will disappear, and so will cross-town busing to
"We can make curriculum accessible to every kid," he says,
"Place doesn't make the difference."
Special education in Oregon's largest district is a big
enterprise. It enrolls 6,500 of Portland's 48,000 students, ages
5 to 21. These students are helped by 900 teachers, therapists,
psychologists and educational assistants. The disabilities range
from dyslexia to profound retardation. The total budget is about
$61 million, which includes federal and state money.
Statewide, educators report there are more than 75,000
Oregonians from birth through age 21 who receive special
education services from school districts, education service
districts and other agencies. Nearly 14 percent of all public
school students in Oregon have disabilities.
Inclusion is controversial. The federal law that governs the
education of children with disabilities does not directly
reference inclusion. Some parents worry that their
special-education children will be lost in general classrooms;
others battle school districts to get access to the regular
curriculum for their children.
Parents of children in general classrooms sometimes complain
about special-needs students taking up too much of the teacher's
Educating students with disabilities in "the least restrictive
environment," as it's known in special-education parlance, is
embedded in the federal law. To the extent they can, schools are
supposed to place students in general-education classrooms,
tailoring the curriculum for them and providing them help. That
could mean an education aide, a hearing aid or some other
service or tool that helps the student with learning.
But it doesn't always work out that way. Many students in
Portland and other school districts wind up in self-contained
classrooms with little or no exposure to the curriculum other
students get. And some students are transported to locations far
from their homes.
Interest started early Remus grew up in Kansas and learned about
disabled children at an early age. He worked in a preschool for
physically and mentally handicapped children as a Kansas State
University student. He has been a special education teacher, a
college instructor and a special education director for Kansas
and for several school districts. He served on the President's
Committee on Mental Retardation for six years and was president
of the Arc of the United States (formerly the Association for
Retarded Citizens). He and his wife, Genevieve, have raised four
children, two of them with disabilities. His salary in Portland
is $105,000 annually.
In three years in Williamson County, Tenn., schools, near
Nashville, Remus moved about 400 special-education students back
to their neighborhood schools. He got rid of self-contained
classrooms where many special-education students spent all or
most of their day.
He also established learning centers in each school, rooms where
not only special-education students, but any student, could come
to get help or accelerated learning. It removed the stigma that
special-education students were different, he said, and conveyed
the idea that all students need individual attention at some
And special education teachers moved into the general classrooms
along with the special-education students. There, they
collaborated with the regular teachers to help any student with
Summer academy Remus also established a summer academy to train
special-education teachers in inclusion. Over time, general
education teachers started coming to learn how they could more
effectively deal with disabled students. And the academy has
broadened its scope to address how all students who struggle can
Student achievement improved in the Tennessee district. Those in
the lowest quartile of testing in the district -- which includes
many of the special-education students -- made well more than a
year's gain in reading and math during one year of instruction.
The gains were most dramatic in the early grades.
But some Williamson County parents and teachers thought Remus
moved too fast.
"He made as many parents unhappy as he did happy," said Sharon
Bottorff, director of the Arc of Williamson County.
Some parents of older special-education students wanted their
children to remain in self-contained classrooms because they
felt safer there. Some teachers were fearful they wouldn't know
how to cope with special-education students with behavior
Mary Roush, a parent of a child with autism now in the eighth
grade, said her son had been in a regular classroom -- with a
properly trained aide -- before Remus arrived in Williamson
County. She supported Remus' efforts to move other students
segregated into self-contained classrooms to the general school
Parent not impressed Roush said she became disillusioned when
the trained aide was no longer available and her son faltered.
Remus insisted that the child be in the general classroom in the
seventh grade. After a protracted legal battle, Roush has her
son at home in the mornings for academic training and takes him
to school for socialization later in the day. She said federal
law requires flexibility for each student, according to an
individual education plan. It's not a one-size-fits-all system.
Remus, for his part, says he realizes that not every
special-education student can participate in the general
curriculum. But inclusion should be the starting point, he says,
with students put in other programs only as necessary.
In Portland, Remus plans to move special-education students back
to their neighborhood schools at a natural transition point --
when they are moving from elementary school to middle school,
for example. And, he says, children won't be moved without the
training of teachers and the supports special-education students
need to cope.
"It will be a thoughtful, well-planned process that takes into
account all the needs of everyone involved," Remus wrote in a
memo to the Portland district staff.
Meanwhile, many parents of special-education children in
Portland are hopeful.
"I think he brings a unique perspective as parent himself of
children with disabilities," says Sharon Lewis, whose daughter,
Zoe, has a disability. "The fact that he sees kids as students
first, and children who happen to need a special-education
service second, is just wonderful."
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