School Beat: Reaching Special Education Ideals is Still Far Off-Part 1

by Rachel Powell Norton on May 31, 2006

Today’s School Beat is the first of a three part consecutive series on the effort to integrate students who are receiving special education services into general education classrooms in all public schools in San Francisco.

Google the expression “special education is a service, not a place” and you will come up with many references from special educators, disability advocates, parents and school administrators nationwide. In a perfect world, this slogan would describe reality. But as a parent and an advocate for effective education programs for all children, it seems to me that we still have a long way to go.

Full Inclusion’s History and Benefits
Currently, my child attends a San Francisco elementary school where she receives services allowing her to participate as a full member of a general education classroom, an educational program known as full inclusion.
Full inclusion grew out of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), which was first passed in 1975. IDEA guarantees the right of students with disabilities to receive a “free, appropriate public education” in what it calls “the least restrictive environment” (LRE). Subsequent court cases have defined LRE as the general education classroom at the school the student would have attended if not disabled.
Once the courts mandated a transition to LRE for all students with disabilities, school districts began trying to figure out how to educate these students in their existing programs. In 1994, San Francisco public schools began transitioning to full inclusion for students with disabilities. Eventually, district policy decreed, every school in San Francisco would comply with the LRE requirement by welcoming students with disabilities in general education.
This was not just another educational fad. In 1995, the National Longitudinal Study of Special Education Students found that those students who were removed from general education were more likely to drop out and to be dependent on public assistance in their post-high school years. These students were less likely to be living independently, and more likely to have criminal records. Sadly, scholars and advocates agree that the findings of this decade-old study are still current.
Exposure to the expectations of the general curriculum encourages students to achieve, even as they are receiving supports and modifications to assist them. There are many anecdotes about people who at one time were assumed to be ineducable but who eventually found the inner resources and community support to build independence and fulfillment in their lives. Segregation creates a cycle of lowered expectations and failure. The theory behind inclusion is that it sets higher expectations while supporting students to succeed at the level appropriate for them.
The benefits of inclusion extend beyond students with disabilities. Inclusion allows general education peers to view disability as only one aspect of the individual; they see their classmates as people first and are less likely to be intimidated or put off by their differences.
In the 1990s, inclusion in San Francisco grew rapidly. In 1994, there were just 50 full inclusion students at 10 schools. Today, there are 45 schools in the district offering full inclusion programs and about 450 students participating (though this still only represents 38 percent of all schools in the district and just six percent of the district’s total special education enrollment). The district created the Inclusion Task Force, a group of teachers, administrators and parents who created resources for the transition. Some of these resources were licensed by major publishers and are still distributed nationwide, generating royalties for the district. Scholarly journals cited San Francisco as a national model for others to follow.
But progress toward fully including students with disabilities in our schools has slowed, even though the laws remain clear that the general education classroom–with necessary modifications and supports–should be the first placement considered for any child with a disability. The district has chosen lately to focus on self-contained classrooms, partly out of a belief that they represent lower staff costs, and partly because the earlier experience with inclusion was just plain hard for everyone involved.

Implementing Full Inclusion
Implementing inclusion is hard. It requires commitment and tremendous collaboration between general education teachers and their counterparts in special education. It requires training for all staff, and it requires flexibility from all parties. But after functioning separately for decades distrust and organizational barriers between general and special education run deep. General education teachers feel intimidated by disability and do not believe they have the training to teach students with marked differences; special educators feel they are treated as “country cousins” when it comes to the general curriculum and content standards. The irony is, however, that most teachers who participate in a well-designed inclusion program find that it is satisfying and rewarding work.
It is probably not true that well-implemented inclusive schooling must cost more than self-contained classrooms, according to Dr. Ann Halvorsen, a Professor of Special Education at California State University, East Bay, and a longtime participant in the district’s Inclusion Task Force. In a 1996 study, Dr. Halvorsen and her colleagues found that supporting students with disabilities in general education classrooms produced small savings in facilities and transportation costs, and provided resources from special education to general education students as well. While there are staff costs involved in professional development for teachers and paraprofessionals providing inclusive education, districts must invest in professional development for any new programs they institute. Finally, paraprofessional costs depend more on students’ needs than on their classroom program; a student who cannot move at all independently will probably need full time staff support in any placement.

Next in Part II: Self-contained classrooms introduce their own barriers for students with disabilities.

Rachel Powell Norton is a parent of two children attending San Francisco public schools, and a member of the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education.

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