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Article of Interest - Inclusion

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Bridges4Kids LogoAnd 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 special programs.

"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 time.

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 point.

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 learning problems.

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 be helped.

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 problems.

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 population.

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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