Learning Hurts Social Education
by Becca Bacon Martin, Morning News, December 28, 2003
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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
"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
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
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."
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
Deborah Wilson, now director of special services for the
Fayetteville School District, cannot discuss any student's
"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
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.
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
"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
"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."
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
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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