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Article of Interest - Inclusion

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Learning-Disabled Students Blossom in Blended Classes
Michael Winerip, New York Times, November 30, 2005
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Sarah Jacobs' son Jed, 9, has a learning disability. He's easily distracted and, if asked to do too many things at once, panics. At his former school, a private academy that cost $20,000 a year, his mother says Jed got into trouble daily ("kicking and even some biting") and stopped learning. "He was reading 'Captain Underpants' in kindergarten and he was in third grade and still reading 'Captain Underpants,'" she says.

So in September she switched him to a nearby public school, P.S. 75 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Jed was a new boy. His fourth grade had two full-time teachers and the class was so well-organized, Jed moved smoothly from one task to the next. When Ms. Jacobs asked how he liked it, Jed said he thought his teachers must have a disability too, because they made it so easy to understand the work.

"I haven't had one call about his behavior," she says, "and he's learning again. He's gone from 'Captain Underpants' to 'Harry Potter.' "

Jed was surprised when he found out there were 8 other special ed children in his class of 31. "I couldn't tell who they were," he says. "I thought I might be the only one and I was wrong."

It is hard to tell. Class work is so individualized, students can be reading books on a dozen levels at once. And though one of his teachers, Denise West, is certified in special education, she circulates around the room, helping general education students, too. "The extra help Jed gets is invisible," says his mother. Indeed, even after two days at P.S. 75, it was hard for me to pick out many of the special ed students.

This collaborative team teaching model - pairing a general ed and special ed teacher in a classroom that is up to 40 percent special ed children - is considered one of the best hopes for mainstreaming more handicapped children. In New York City, about 12,500 special ed students - nearly 10 per cent of the special ed population - now attend these classes.

Those who've seen it done right swear by it. Last year, at another school, Johanny Lopez taught a "self contained" class of a dozen learning- and emotionally disabled second and third graders. "Their bad behaviors fed off each other," she says. This year, at P.S. 75, Ms. Lopez is team teaching in a first grade of 22, 8 of them special ed. "I love it," she says, "It's a lot more hopeful for children."

But the collaborative model is also a lot more work. The fifth grade team of Mayra Fernandez and Daisy Miranda arrive an hour early each morning to choreograph who will lead which lesson and what support the other will provide. Ms. Lopez and her teaching partner, Chante Martindale spent a recent Saturday afternoon planning the coming week.

It takes the proper mix of students - one child with too serious an emotional problem can undo a class. And teachers must provide extra enrichment for bright general ed students so they stay challenged and their parents stay cooperative.

A recent independent study of the city's special education system praised the expansion of this model under Chancellor Joel I. Klein, but found that too often, the classes are poorly run, resisted by parents of general ed students, and become "dumping grounds" for the lowest tracked children.

In a column on that report, I mentioned troubles at a P.S. 75 kindergarten last year and soon after got an angry email from the principal, Robert O'Brien. While Mr. O'Brien acknowledged problems, he said that they were the exception; he had nine effective classes, he said, and he invited me to see them.

I visited and agree, the model seems to work well at P.S. 75. I saw a good deal of hope and much skilled teaching. In first grade, while Ms. Lopez taught a math lesson, Ms. Martindale sat beside the most distracted girl and boy and with a few whispered words, kept them on task. When a boy who has retardation couldn't answer a question, Ms. Martindale had the child call on a helper for the answer, and the class moved along briskly.

Because special ed children may have trouble copying homework assignments off the board, every P.S. 75 child gets a red folder, with a nightly homework list from the teacher.

Teachers take on challenges at P.S. 75 that few schools attempt. Katherine Baldwin and Liz Ciotti work together in a second grade that they also teach in two languages. (Of 26 children, 9 are special ed, 13 Spanish-dominant and 6 are both special ed and Spanish-dominant). One day they teach in English, the next Spanish. Every child gets a chance to shine; on Spanish days, Hispanic special ed children help out general ed children.

But watching it done well also explains why there are problems implementing the model citywide. Though 50 percent of the children qualify for free lunches at P.S. 75, there is a sizable middle-class population and the school sits in the midst of a socially active community that provides more than 100 volunteers to the building.

Wendy Dubin is a real Upper West Side parent, pleased to have her bright fourth grade son, Alex, taught with special ed children because she believes it will make Alex a better person. But there are other draws. A retired high school math teacher runs an algebra group for the 10 brightest fourth graders. Volunteers run a chess club, a book club and created a first-rate, well-staffed library. That library hooked Jed on "Harry Potter." "The librarian got me more excited about books. I don't know how she does it," says Jed. Dee Ratterree has the time and the books.THE principal, Mr. O'Brien, started as a special ed teacher 30 years ago and has made the program a priority. In the spring, one of his teachers, Donna Garfinkel selects special ed students from self contained programs who she feels can succeed in a mixed P.S. 75 class. But she's also aggressive about screening out children. "I'm not shy," she says, "I'll tell parents, "I don't think your child's ready for this.'"

While P.S. 75 special ed children consistently score better on state tests than these children citywide (19 percent of P.S. 75 special ed fourth graders were proficient in English in 2004, versus 15 per cent citywide) they lag far behind P.S. 75's general ed students (60 per cent proficient in English in 2004). Mr. O'Brien believes the integration gives many their best chance to flourish, however, as the scores show, it's not magic. "You have to be realistic about what a child can achieve," he says.

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