School Beat: The State of Inclusion in SFUSD

by Katy Franklin on December 10, 2009

Inclusive schools educate children with disabilities in general education classrooms, alongside their typical peers, instead of placing them in segregated classrooms.

This week, as a tribute to National Inclusive Schools Week (December 7th-11th), the San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) Board of Education justifiably commemorated Presidio Child Development Center as being a model inclusion program for Pre-K children. My son was in Presidio’s program for two years and made amazing progress. Problem is, Presidio is the only CDC in San Francisco with a full inclusion program, and has only 12 “seats” available. 400 Pre-K children receive special education services from SFUSD and 12 full inclusion PreK seats comes nowhere close to meeting the demand, as evidenced by the 59 incoming SFUSD Kindergartners who enrolled in inclusion programs this year.

What is Full Inclusion?

Currently, SFUSD has two ways of integrating students with disabilities with non-disabled peers. Students with disabilities can be mainstreamed for some portion of the school day, but their home classroom is usually a self-contained special education class. Alternately, students are fully included in the general education classroom and receive various supports in that classroom to participate to the fullest extent possible.

Both educational environments have been described as inclusive, but the chief difference between the approaches is the student’s full membership in the general education environment. Students being mainstreamed are not full members of the general education environment, but participate in it to a greater or lesser extent; they are “guests’ to the class. With full inclusion, students with disabilities are full participants in the general education classroom, and the classroom environment expands to accommodate their unique needs, abilities, and strengths.

Why Is Full Inclusion Necessary?

First and foremost, it’s the law. The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) governs the education of students with disabilities. One of the central principles of IDEA is the presumption that the first educational placement considered for any student with a disability is the “least restrictive environment,” (LRE) or the classroom they would have attended if not disabled. In addition to LRE, schools must provide students with disabilities an educational program that is individualized to their specific needs, called an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) quite clearly states that state and local government Public Services, including public schools, may not discriminate against individuals with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, further prohibit school districts from discriminating on the basis of disability by:

• Denying a student the opportunity to participate in or benefit from a benefit or service,

• Providing an opportunity to participate or benefit that is unequal to that provided others,

• Providing a benefit or service that is not as effective as that provided to others,

• Providing lower quality benefits, services or programs than those provided others.

What the law says is one thing, what SFUSD does is another.

A few years back, when I was looking for a Kindergarten for my son none of the three schools in my neighborhood would allow my child admittance, because of his autism. “There are plenty of other schools he can go to,” one principal told me.

This was obviously upsetting. I thought of Linda Brown (Brown vs. Board of Education) and understood in a way I never had before what Linda Brown’s mother must have felt like, experiencing such injustice and prejudice. I wanted to fight the battle, but I wasn’t as brave as Linda Brown’s parents were, and what would I win?

Admittance of my son in a school that had no experience with full inclusion, and whose leadership would be hostile to the idea of having to include my son? It was then my mantra began: Inclusion is a service, not a program, and should be available at every school. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

The Board of Education in San Francisco has continually reaffirmed SFUSD’s commitment to diversity. Students with disabilities enhance the diversity and tolerance of a school environment, particularly when they have regular and meaningful contact with non-disabled peers. Full inclusion programs are particularly designed to meet the ideal of diversity in the school environment, and we as a district should be no less committed to the full inclusion of students with disabilities than we are to the full inclusion of people of varied racial backgrounds or socioeconomic circumstances.

Where We Were

In 1993-94, SFUSD initiated a plan to expand full inclusion programs to every school in the district. At that time, we had just 50 students fully included in general education classrooms at 10 schools in the district. By 2005, this number had grown to over 470 students fully included at 47 schools.

At the outset of the plan to expand inclusion, schools were told that they would eventually be required to create full inclusion programs, and were invited to participate voluntarily with support of the district Special Education Department and a unique partnership with Cal State Hayward funded by Federal grants.

This partnership resulted in some significant achievements:

• Creation of the Inclusion Task Force, a collaborative group of parents and educators to steer needed resources and articulate best practices to the school sites;

• National recognition in textbooks, film and at numerous special and general education conferences;

• The creation (in 1995-96) of a series of videos used for training purposes; these videos are sold and distributed internationally by a major publisher and continue to bring royalties to San Francisco Unified;

• The development of SFUSD Core Curriculum for All manual (2000) and personnel development series; as well as the SFUSD Inclusion Handbook (1996).

Where We Are Today

Sadly, SFUSD has forgotten its earlier stated goal of offering full inclusion as an option to all students with disabilities, at all schools in the district. Since 2005, 92 more students are in inclusion programs, (for a total of 562 students) but there are two less schools offering full inclusion. Inclusion Support Teacher (IST) caseloads have risen dramatically, hindering the teachers’ ability to deliver the services and supports outlined in children’s IEPs, and resulting in SFUSD being found guilty of noncompliance in lawsuits.

Anecdotal evidence from parents of children with disabilities transitioning to Kindergarten indicates that families are strongly and routinely urged to consider more restrictive placements before opting for inclusion classrooms for their children, even though this advice runs counter to the bias of I.D.E.A., which stresses that the general education classroom should always be considered first.

Consider the following:

• There are limited options for inclusion programs in all neighborhoods; only 45 out of 140 SFUSD schools (less than 33%) have an inclusion program

• Unlike the reams of data released for general education programs, Educational Placement does not publish any data on openings or requests for inclusion seats at the schools that offer inclusion; parents quite literally have no idea when they fill out the enrollment request form whether a school they are considering even has openings in the grades they need and how good the odds are that their child will receive a spot;

• Many inclusion programs are out of compliance with special education class sizes as listed in the District’s contract with United Educators of San Francisco;

There is a clear disconnect between the number of inclusion seats available in the district and the number of inclusion students overall. For the 2009-10 school year, there are 342 inclusion “seats” available in grades K through 5 at 31 schools, or an average of 57 seats per elementary grade across the district. There are 112 middle school inclusion “seats” available at seven schools, or an average of 16seats in grades 6 to 8. At the high school level, there are 95 inclusion seats available at six schools, or just below 16 seats per grade.

• While the capacity data and trends are troubling, issues of equity are downright shameful. Students requiring full inclusion services are barred from the district’s highest-scoring middle school, Presidio, and highest-scoring high school, Lowell. This is a clear violation of Section 504, since the placement offerings for full inclusion do not currently include the best academic environments, arguably, that San Francisco Unified has to offer in the middle- and high-school categories.

The District claims that the assignment system for students receiving special education services is done by lottery in order to make it “the same” as the assignment process for General Education, but the process is far from the same, as pointed out in previous School Beat columns: “School Choice” System Fraught with Bias for Special Education Students, and SFUSD’s Special Education Assignment Process Needs Rethinking.

Last year Rachel Norton, a parent of a child with autism, was elected to the Board of Education, and parents of children with disabilities finally have a voice SFUSD has to listen to.

Hopefully the other Board Commissioners will support Rachel Norton in her goal to make all SFUSD schools fully inclusive.

But the mantra continues: Inclusion is a service, not a program, and should be available at every school. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

This is not just a special education issue — it is a civil rights issue.

Katy Franklin is the parent of a 4th grader enrolled in Creative Arts Charter School and Vice-Chair of the SFUSD Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, This Saturday, December 12th, Katy is presenting a free Workshop on Inclusive Education with Professor Ann Halvorsen (CSUEB) at John O’Connell High School at 2355 Folsom Street from 8:30am-12:30pm, sponsored by Support For Families of Children With Disabilities. RSVP required. Call 415-920-5040 to sign up.

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