Mark Waller, New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 22, 2005
For more articles like this
In the metro
area, special-education schoolchildren are increasingly moving
into regular classes. Once there, the children -- those with
special needs and those without -- are learning important
lessons about life.
It was a December morning in the fifth grade, just days before
vacation. The children sat at their desks, arranged in clusters,
concentrating on worksheets about synonyms. At the back of
class, however, one boy grew restless.
Patrick Pearson struggled with a pair of broken glasses and a
surge of nervous energy. His glasses had snapped in half, he
said, after a classmate tried to grab them, prompting a brief
He ceaselessly fiddled with the glasses during his morning
classes at Green Park Elementary School in Metairie. He taped
them together. The frames popped off his face and hit the floor.
He squinted through one lens, contorting his face at other
students. A teacher scolded him.
When he went to his class for gifted students just before lunch,
Patrick's behavior veered toward crossing the line. A small
group was reading a whodunit story set at the North Pole and
discussing clues to the mystery. Patrick repeatedly interrupted.
He complained he couldn't read without his glasses.
"Patrick, you know what, when I'm talking, hold it in," the
teacher, Rhoda Webber, told him.
"I can't," he protested. "It's so hard. My frontal lobe doesn't
work that way."
Patrick is an imaginative, fast-talking, wisecracking,
12-year-old whom educators identify as a sharp learner. At the
same time, though, they say he has a disability, specifically an
emotional disturbance that can make him fidgety, defiant and
At Green Park, a 450-student public school where two-thirds of
the children come from poor families and the test scores rank
just above the middle of New Orleans area schools, most of the
50 or so students with disabilities study alongside everyone
else -- all day.
Educators call it inclusion. They say it has long been a
national priority, fueled by a federal law that says children
should learn in "the least restrictive environment."
Louisiana, however, lagged near the bottom, for placing many of
its special education students in separate classrooms or even
separate schools, with the seclusion of students with
disabilities most pronounced in Jefferson and Orleans parishes.
That segregation attracted federal inspectors in 2000, who
scrutinized those two parishes and three others across the
state, concluding Louisiana had to launch a sustained
improvement effort, or risk losing federal money.
For the past two school years at Green Park, the movement toward
greater inclusion has meant the school's special education
students, mostly with cognitive disabilities such as behavior
disorders, emotional imbalances, learning weaknesses and autism,
mix into all the classrooms.
Advocates say it teaches special-needs children how to relate in
society and keep up academically with their peers, while
students without disabilities learn to respect people who are
different from them. To critics, inclusion means less teaching
and more chaos, with special-needs students not getting enough
attention and, in turn, distracting others.
Every day brings small dramas. A child unleashes an outburst.
Exasperated teachers struggle to keep order and meet vastly
But there also are little triumphs. Children help their
classmates. Behavior problems gradually fade. Children who used
to study separately begin feeling like they belong.
Patrick was in a regular education class in second grade when
his behavior broke down at school and permanently shifted the
course of his schooling. His mother suggested family stress
might have weighed too heavily on a child already inclined
toward strong feelings.
His home life had been difficult at times, said his parents,
Teresa and Patrick Pearson Sr. For years, they were preoccupied
with taking care of his ailing grandmother, his father's mother.
Later, both paternal grandparents died within months of each
Partly because of financial struggles and partly to be closer to
the grandparents, the family moved three times in three years.
They now live in Metairie with Patrick's maternal grandmother.
Second grade passed with little learning, said his teacher,
Kathy Chiles. He came to school tired and angry almost every
day, often sleeping at his desk until lunch and spending the
rest of the time with his arms folded, scowling.
The slightest request, something as simple as telling the
children to pull out their books or pencils, could send him into
He pounded his desk with his fists. He hit his head on it. He
threw pencils, books and a chair. He overturned his desk and a
table, Chiles recalled.
Patrick said he felt intense frustration in second grade and
didn't know how to control it. Once, he said, he stood up,
hopped in place, clenched his fists and let out a muffled wail.
"I was holding my mouth, screaming inside of myself," he said.
For Chiles, it stands as the most extreme behavior she's seen in
a 25-year teaching career. Making the sight even stranger,
Chiles said, was that Patrick, with a round face and curly hair,
"I would stand there in awe," Chiles said, "because he was so
little, and he had all this strength and anger in him."
Officials tested him and found he had both an emotional
disturbance and intellectual gifts.
He repeated second grade, this time in a small special education
class away from most of the children, getting more attention
from teachers. Similar arrangements continued in third grade,
with Patrick attending regular classes only on a limited basis.
His parents said he calmed down considerably in the special
education classes. Still, they didn't want him to stay off to
the side receiving special treatment forever. At some point, he
would have to learn how to function in the general population.
When Patrick reached fourth grade last school year, Green Park
After the 2000 federal inspection, the push for inclusion had
shifted into high gear in Jefferson Parish and statewide. In
addition to the 30-year-old Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act and its call for the least restrictive settings,
recent national reforms pushed schools to boost special
education students' scores on some of the same standardized
tests that all students take.
While inclusion is not specifically mentioned in the law,
educators see it as the best route to compliance and success for
students, said John Hager, assistant secretary for special
education at the U.S. Department of Education. The practice has
been spreading nationwide for years, he said.
The key to inclusion, Hager said, is that students with
disabilities get extra help from special education teachers and
teacher assistants, who monitor strategies tailored to each
child while other teachers guide the whole class.
But Jefferson and Orleans fell behind the trend. Federal
regulators also examined East Baton Rouge, East Carroll and
Rapides parishes before deciding Louisiana needed to improve.
"If you go back five years ago, we had some of the most
segregated classes in the nation," said Virginia Beridon,
special populations director for the Louisiana Department of
That didn't mean inclusion was entirely foreign to Louisiana.
Officials in St. Charles and St. Tammany parishes, for example,
described it as a long-standing practice, in some cases dating
to the 1970s.
The five parishes under federal scrutiny, however, entered
state-supervised monitoring to ensure they boosted their
efforts. With federal grants to pay for teacher training and
expert consultants, the parishes braced for what Beridon called
"a real mind shift."
After hearing about the grants, Green Park Principal Vic
Castillo, a soft-spoken, earnest educator who has dedicated much
of his three-decade career to special-needs children, welcomed
He had taught students with physical disabilities, cerebral
palsy, autism and behavior disorders. He had been director of a
school for hospitalized children, principal of a school for
children with behavior problems and a special education
coordinator in the Jefferson public schools' central office.
Castillo said Green Park had an accepting culture, where
students with disabilities already mingled with their peers to a
degree, but he still anticipated resistance to the idea of
moving all but a few of the children with the most severe
disabilities into regular classes full-time. He even had a round
table moved into his office so people could sit at equal
positions while they worked through the inevitable
He heard from parents of children in special education, worried
their children wouldn't get enough individual attention in
bigger classes. He heard from parents of students without
disabilities, worried about disruptions by the special-needs
And he heard from teachers who bristled about losing autonomy in
their classrooms. The change meant working closely on lesson
planning with other teachers and parents of students with
disabilities, who often serve as tireless advocates for their
children. It also meant teachers would have to juggle a larger
assortment of student needs.
Challenges for teachers
Cari Rhoton's hands seemed in constant motion when she was
teaching. She clapped them together when she asked a question.
She clasped them in anticipation of an answer from a student.
Then she gestured as if she were pulling in the answer at the
end of a rope.
One day last year, as Green Park launched its inclusion project,
Rhoton, who is special education certified and a one-time parish
Teacher of the Year, led a group of fourth-graders in a lesson
She had her hands full with Dario Vicedomini, who has a form of
When the other children shot up their arms, Dario didn't
respond. He shook his desk. A girl shushed him. Rhoton leaned
"You aren't doing your work," Rhoton said. "If you do your work
like everyone else does their work, I wouldn't have to come by
you. Do you want me by you?"
She went to a closet, retrieved her cell phone and placed it in
front of Dario, telling him he would have to call his mother if
his behavior didn't improve. That was one of the regular tactics
she used to motivate him.
Jumping back to the lesson, she had the students line up
colorful plastic pieces, taking a visual approach to fractions.
Dario picked up a few and dropped them on his table, making a
series of clinks.
Then he started chanting: "I can't see. I can't see. What's
wrong with me? I've got my eyes closed."
Rhoton pulled up a child-size chair and sat close, trying to
simultaneously direct Dario's attention and speak to the class.
But he never quite settled down. In the hallway later, she
handed him the cell phone and told him to talk to his mother.
No set model
Despite the challenges, some teachers, including Rhoton, believe
in inclusion, convinced children can thrive if surrounded by
For others, especially teachers used to working only in regular
education, inclusion is tumultuous.
"We jumped into the frying pan," fifth-grade teacher Susan Doell
said. "We didn't know what end was up, what end was down."
Doell, with her trademark sarcasm, her belief that being stern
toughens children for middle school, and her habit of telling
students when they're jangling her nerves, said she didn't have
the background or temperament to handle complex disabilities.
She agreed isolated learning might not be best, but also doubted
inclusion, Green Park-style, was working.
In fifth grade, one special education teacher consults with
three regular teachers, and two teacher assistants help with
No set model dictates how inclusion should work. Doell's ideal
would be to have a certified special education teacher in every
classroom, but that's an expensive proposition.
Either way, Dario's mother, Doriana Vicedomini, has insisted her
son learn with regular-education children almost since the day
an educator suggested that her son, then 4, might have autism.
She dashed to a bookstore. The repetitive, obsessive and distant
behaviors she read about were all too familiar. Realizing her
world had changed for good, she sat on the floor crying.
Dario spent some time in kindergarten in a group with children
who had similar disabilities. To his mother, all he seemed to
learn was to flap his hands and make noises like the other
"How is it going to be beneficial to stick them in the same
room, and they have no one to learn off of?" Vicedomini asked.
"He wouldn't pick up good things. He would pick up all the odd
Brimming with creativity
Moving back into regular classes last year brought some ups and
downs for Patrick. But much of the time, he did his work. Gone
were the tantrums. Inclusion seemed to be helping, his teachers
said. Patrick was brimming with creativity.
During a spring day in fourth grade, when his science class went
outside to identify clouds, most of the children looked for
cumulus, cirrus, stratus and so on. Patrick was the one seeing
shapes, asserting that an upside-down pirate ship was sailing
across the sky.
He carried a notebook that he used to record ideas, such as his
recent designs for a hovercraft. This year, when he finished a
quiz before the rest of his English class, he sketched imaginary
video game weapons.
"The slime shooter, it shoots out electric slime," he said. "The
phona gun makes your head explode from the high-pitched noises.
The piranha launcher, it launches piranhas and eats your face
Fourth grade culminated with speech night, when the children
performed for an audience of parents and guest judges.
Patrick distinguished himself by arriving in costume, as a
prophet in beige robes and a white beard. He recited the opening
of Genesis, a selection he had picked himself, which he said
gave him more motivation.
Many of the children stood stiffly and spoke in monotone.
Patrick walked onto the cafeteria stage with authority, gestured
with dramatic flair and projected his voice.
During the awards, when a teacher called out Patrick's name as
the first-place winner in his homeroom class, his father saw him
pump his fists and exclaim, "Yes, yes, yes, yes."
He beamed while he held his trophy. The moment showed him he
could compete with everybody in class, his parents and teachers
"It gave me plenty of confidence," Patrick said, "knowing that I
was a special ed kid and got first place."
On a January morning this year, after the children had moved on
to fifth grade, inclusion yielded an encouraging moment from a
student without disabilities as well.
That student, Kurt Gardere, sat with Dario, trying to keep him
attuned to a lesson on speed, velocity, momentum and inertia.
Dario leaned back in his chair. A science book on his desk sat
open to pictures of a jet skier and a cargo ship. A portable
keyboard rested on his lap. He uses the keyboard because he
struggles with the mental and motor coordination needed for
Kurt encouraged Dario, telling him he had only a page of
questions to go. Dario flatly repeated the other boy's name:
"Kurt, Kurt, Kurt, Kurt, Kurt." Then he shut off his keyboard.
"Why'd you turn it off, Dario?" Kurt asked. "Don't turn it off."
Growing jittery, Dario took a verbal jab at Kurt. He has a
problem with insulting people. It's as if he lacks an internal
censor, his mother said.
"Your breath is foul, Kurt," Dario said.
But Kurt took the remark in stride. And near the end of the
lesson, Dario thanked him, prompting a flurry of praise from
teachers for his politeness. Kurt even asked if he could sit by
Dario in the next period.
"Some people are mean to them because they're special," Kurt
said about his classmates. "It's not right to be mean to them."
Parents of students without disabilities sometimes argue that
inclusion only spawns disorder. Keeping regular-education
children in line can be tough enough without adding special
challenges, said Theresa Wilson, who had a second-grader at
Green Park last year but moved her to a private school.
"They're having to constantly discipline these kids," Wilson
said. "I think it's at the expense of special ed as well as
regular ed students."
But Kurt's mother, Colleen Gardere, said children with different
needs should be mixed together. Her son's kindness toward
children with disabilities makes her proud, she said.
"When you get into the real world," Gardere said, "you have to
interact with everybody."
Principal Castillo described inclusion as a continuum, ranging
from full participation to more limited access for students with
Fifth-grader Craig Seeber has a severe form of autism. He speaks
very little, and the few words he says, often echoing other
people, can be difficult to understand. He mostly studies in a
portable building with a few other students, going to a full
classroom only for math.
Socialization is the main purpose for those visits. He has
learned, for example, to raise his hand when he sees other
children raising theirs.
With his quiet, gentle demeanor, Craig rarely disrupts. He sits
at the edge of class with a teacher assistant, pressing down a
worksheet with the palm of his right hand and holding a pencil
in his left. He writes answers to addition problems in tall,
thick numbers, while other students review division or
His answers are often correct. To his mother, Jeanine Seeber,
it's a sign of greater potential, proof he can learn and should
be exposed to regular classes.
Still, she doesn't think he could handle constant exposure and
the teasing and anxiety that could come with it.
But as this school year progressed, the second for inclusion at
Green Park, and the fifth-graders came to their final elementary
school days, Dario seemed to improve at mixing with the rest of
the class, bolstering his mother's belief that for him, it is
best to learn, all the time, with regular-education children.
He stayed on top of the academics. He responded well to a
January change in the plan teachers use to regulate his
behavior. A new chart for tracking his good and bad moments
replaced a punitive system with one that let him set his own
daily goals, such as showing kindness to others, and earn candy
if he collected enough points.
He didn't tease and grab other students as much, said Amy Capps,
the fifth-grade special education teacher. At the core, he wants
to be like everyone else, she said.
"Get rid of exclusion," Dario said. He said he wouldn't want to
be sequestered with other special-needs children. "It would be
boring, because I want more."
By December, it was clear that education officials agreed with
Dario. That month, the state mostly released Jefferson, Orleans
and the three other parishes from the supervision prompted by
federal scrutiny. State officials continued monitoring some of
Jefferson's special education services, but each parish had
slashed its number of students with disabilities in secluded
Every other New Orleans area school system did the same. And the
state climbed from 48th to 41st.
Despite the big gains, officials in Orleans and Jefferson said
inclusion will be an ongoing effort. Even with projects such as
Green Park's, Jefferson didn't move quickly enough to keep up
with the rest of the state, and it dropped to last place for the
most segregation of students with disabilities.
As Dario showed progress, Patrick slid backward. That class in
December with the gifted students and the broken glasses ended
just short of the breaking point.
Patrick squirmed, put his head down and bothered other children
by grabbing for their pencils or blowing on their papers.
Watching his increasing state of agitation, another boy
remarked, "He's going to go freaky."
The teacher, Webber, maintaining a soft voice and stepping
toward her intercom switch, told Patrick she was about to send
him back to his main class, or the office.
"You think I'm milking this, don't you?" Patrick said to her,
referring to his plight with the glasses. "You think I'm
"To a certain extent," Webber replied.
She moved him to another table and read with him while the other
students worked with each other.
They managed to get through the period without Patrick being
ejected. But the day turned out to be just part of a rough
period in the class.
When the students began their reports, each one investigating a
different state, Patrick refused to cooperate.
He pouted, Webber said. He annoyed other students by tapping his
fingers. He played on the computer instead of researching.
Finally, he told Webber he didn't want to be in the gifted class
anymore, because he wanted to do only fun things, not work.
His parents and teachers agreed he seemed unable to focus on the
big report, and they decided to remove him from the class until
the others finished their projects.
His fidgeting went on. Sometimes, he couldn't stop laughing.
Sometimes, he talked out of turn.
"It feels like a tickle in my brain," Patrick said. "It's like I
have that empty space inside of my head that says, 'Say
Sometimes when his emotions started to teeter, Capps took him
into the hall where he could talk through the problem. But the
strategy wasn't always enough.
In March, he complained about a group of students he was
supposed to work with in science class, dropped a stack of
papers on the floor and then slammed the papers onto a desk
after the teacher told him to pick them up. That was one
disruptive move too many, and it got him a one-day suspension.
In April, when Capps told him to stop pushing another student in
the hall, he talked back. She warned him he was again heading
for a suspension. He challenged her to go ahead and do it. The
next school day, he stayed home.
It wasn't until he returned to the fourth-grade speech night
that his days finally brightened. Because of his strong
performance last year, the fourth-grade teacher who organizes
the event invited him back as master of ceremonies, and he again
excelled on stage.
And into May, he seemed to take his studies more seriously. He
returned to his gifted class. He won a scholarship to a summer
arts camp. He backed down from confrontations with teachers.
He sometimes even surprises his second-grade teacher, who had
been through so much with him, when he greets her in the hall
with smiles and hugs.
So, uncertainty shadowed Patrick's second year back in regular
classes full-time and his final year in elementary school. But
in the past weeks, signs of promise also resurfaced.
Undoubtedly, more trials lie ahead. Castillo, however, said he
thinks Patrick could succeed as well as anyone. To Castillo, all
students should get the chance to grow alongside their peers.
"Being included has really promoted and motivated him," Castillo
said about Patrick. "We'll be reading about him and hearing
about him -- in a positive way. I just have that feeling about
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