School Beat: Reaching Special Education Ideals is Still Far Off-Part 2

by Rachel Powell Norton on June 1, 2006

Today’s School Beat is the second 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.

In 1994, the San Francisco Unified School District began moving towards a more inclusive approach towards students with disabilities, and started to phase in “full inclusion” programs at every school. In full inclusion, students with disabilities spend all of their time in general education, receiving supports and modifications to help them participate in the class work to the fullest extent possible.

But after several years of tremendous progress, management shifts and other factors led to yet another change in focus. The goal of fully including students with disabilities at every school was quietly set aside in favor of “inclusiveness” and an increased focus on self-contained classrooms, where students are grouped together by age and need and taught by a special education teacher and several aides for most of the day. Students are “mainstreamed” into general education where possible, but their “home” classroom is special education. These classrooms are known as “Special Day Classes” or SDCs.

With their smaller class sizes, SDCs should boost achievement through personal attention and a differentiated curriculum. But the reality in San Francisco is that these self-contained classrooms do not fully expose students to the state’s content standards, nor do they always provide the course work necessary for students to fulfill college admission requirements. One parent discovered quite by chance that spending any time in an SDC in high school meant that her child would not meet the admission requirements for the California State University system and other four-year colleges and universities; she claims that the district content specialist assigned to her child’s case–the person whose job it is to ensure a proposed program is academically appropriate– was unaware of this until she pointed it out. For students with mild to nonexistent cognitive impairment but other needs that justify a special education placement, an SDC is not currently an academically rigorous option, and spending time in one may significantly restrict post-secondary options.

Academic expectations aside, time spent in an SDC means that students are segregated from their peers – and this is particularly true for students of color. Hispanic and African American students are over-represented in San Francisco’s special education programs, consisting of about 55 percent of the caseload even as these groups make up only 35 percent of total district enrollment. A blistering report in 2005 by the court-appointed monitor of the district’s desegregation efforts found that African American and Hispanic students in special education are often bused across town just to be placed in self-contained classrooms that give them little contact with broader school populations.

Segregated classrooms also introduce unintended barriers. In some schools, SDC students are not allowed to attend general education classes without a paraprofessional, or must “compete” with full inclusion students for mainstreaming opportunities. The scheduling complexity that results from these policies is sometimes insurmountable – one senior with significant needs spent no time in general education this year, despite positive mainstreaming experiences in the past, because there was no way to accommodate her. Unless principals continually and forcefully articulate the importance of including and integrating special education students, general and special education tend to go their separate ways.

The way classrooms are placed at schools also interferes with community-building. In an effort to spread out special education programs to many neighborhoods, the district has often placed a K-2 class at one school, and the corresponding grade 3-5 classroom at another. If there were provisions for transitioning children between SDCs and full inclusion, this arrangement might not matter. But such transitions are rare. Instead, elementary students enrolled in SDCs in the early grades change schools more frequently than general education students do, and as a result they have fewer opportunities to become part of their school communities.

From an administrative standpoint, these changes may make sense, but they fail not take into account the relationships and bonds that are disrupted when students are moved around. If inclusiveness is a central goal for our schools, these relationships should be nurtured, valued and encouraged as part of administrative decision-making. Finally, there is little incentive for individual schools to revisit inclusiveness if there is no district-level expectation for these efforts or any oversight of them.

Next in Part III: Barriers to full inclusion and the future: implementing positive change for all 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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