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Article of Interest - Inclusion

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Bridges4Kids LogoLA Learning Together
Mark Waller, New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 22, 2005
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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 tangle.

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 disruptive.

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 different needs.

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.

Second-grade 'meltdown'

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 other.

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 a rage.

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, was adorable.

"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.

Extra help

When Patrick reached fourth grade last school year, Green Park embraced inclusion.

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 Education.

'Mind shift'

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 the shift.

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 disagreements.

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 students.

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 on fractions.

She had her hands full with Dario Vicedomini, who has a form of autism.

When the other children shot up their arms, Dario didn't respond. He shook his desk. A girl shushed him. Rhoton leaned over him.

"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 their peers.

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 certain students.

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 children.

"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 behaviors."

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 off."

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 said.

"It gave me plenty of confidence," Patrick said, "knowing that I was a special ed kid and got first place."

Encouraging moments

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 handwriting.

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 profound disabilities.

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 introductory geometry.

Moving forward

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 settings.

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.

Sliding back

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 pretending."

"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 something.' "

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 him."


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