School Beat: Reaching Special Education Ideals is Still Far Off-Part 3

by Rachel Powell Norton on June 2, 2006

Today’s School Beat is the last 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.

Almost 30 years after the passage of laws guaranteeing a free, appropriate public education to students with disabilities, children enrolled in special education face many barriers to their full participation in academic and extracurricular activities in regular public schools. Special educators like to say that “special education is a service, not a place,” but as a parent of a child enrolled in special education and an advocate for effective education for all children, it seems to me that we still have a long way to go.

Barriers to Full Inclusion
For my own child, who requires little curriculum modification but significant help in other areas, full inclusion is the only choice. She needs high academic expectations and the example of typically-developing peers, and the general education classroom is the only environment where she can receive these supports. Still, enrolling her in a full inclusion program was not without some unpleasant surprises.
First, there is very little assistance for families undergoing placement. Other than a list of schools offering different program types, there is no centralized source– like an enrollment fair similar to the one held for general education–that offers deeper information about special education programs at the various school sites. Even data like total requests, capacity and open spots (routinely published for general education) are difficult to obtain from the district.

Without enrollment data, and because programs offer a variety of staffing arrangements and differing levels of training for teachers and paraprofessionals, parents who want input into their child’s placement must do the legwork themselves. As a hearing officer scathingly put it in one court case, San Francisco parents have to “embark on (a) Goldilocks-like quest to find a placement that is ‘just right.’” When I was looking at full inclusion programs for Kindergarten, the guides on the school tours I took could not answer any questions about special education; most of my questions required a separate appointment with the inclusion specialist or the principal.

Second, there are limited choices, and these choices narrow dramatically as children move through the system. While San Francisco does have a larger full inclusion program than many other districts, most schools still do not offer full inclusion, even though the law is meant to apply to all schools. For the 2006-07 school year, there are 297 inclusion “seats” available in grades K through 5 at 31 schools, or an average of 50 seats per elementary grade across the district. There are 108 middle school inclusion “seats” available at six schools, or an average of 36 seats in grades 6 to 8. (Claire Lilienthal has an additional inclusion capacity of 24 seats, representing two or three additional seats per grade level for grades K through 8). At the high school level, there are 81 inclusion seats available at six schools, or just 23 seats per grade. Clearly, the district does not expect students with disabilities to stay in full inclusion programs throughout their school careers; this attitude is curious when you consider that the general education classroom is the law’s clear preference for placement.

It should be noted that, district-wide, full inclusion programs in San Francisco Unified do not appear to be fully enrolled (though it is close at the high school level, with just one inclusion seat currently open for 2006-07). However, this obscures the fact that the district is not making the same commitment to fully including children that it did in the past, and that its actions are suppressing demand. In placement meetings, for example, families report being strongly cautioned against requesting full inclusion, because they are told their children will receive more comprehensive and personal support in a self-contained classroom. Faced with the choice of battling for minimal (let alone “appropriate”) support or choosing an environment that is portrayed as personalized and welcoming, many families fail to assert their right to the general education classroom with necessary modifications and supports and instead opt for Special Day Classroom (SDC) placement.

Ultimately, whether or not the district has sufficient inclusion capacity, the real issue is access and the equity of the choices being offered to students with disabilities compared with those offered to non-disabled students. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a Federal law, decrees that publicly-funded entities must not offer people with disabilities opportunities, benefits or choices that are not equal to those given to non-disabled people. But in San Francisco,
• Children with disabilities have fewer choices of school sites even as non-disabled students can choose from any school in the district;
• Non-disabled students are guaranteed the right to attend school with an older sibling, but students with disabilities and their non-disabled siblings do not receive the same guarantee;
• The top-scoring high school (Lowell) and top-scoring middle school (Presidio) do not admit full inclusion students.

The Future: Implementing Positive Change For All Students
I feel worried when I survey my daughter’s future school and program choices. There are some wonderfully inclusive schools in San Francisco, but there are still too many where “inclusiveness” is an afterthought if it is considered at all. At the district level, policies seem to place program availability – the “place” for special education –over the flexible and thoughtful approach to my child’s needs that the laws require. The reality is that here, as in many other districts, special education is still much more of a place than a service.

Someday, perhaps, children with severe to mild disabilities will be able to access therapeutic services and educational supports at every school, learn alongside familiar and understanding peers, and be encouraged throughout their academic careers to reach their fullest potential, whatever it might be. What it will take to get there is a renewed commitment to inclusiveness, high-quality professional development, flexibility, collaboration and vision.

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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