School Beat: Is Inclusive Education a Privilege or a Right?

by Katy Franklin and Rachel Powell Norton on February 16, 2006

Despite laws prohibiting such discrimination and segregation, more than 65% of San Francisco Unified School District schools ban children with special needs from being educated in classrooms alongside their typical peers.

“Our school does not have an inclusion program,” is the polite way the school administrators put it. But, to parents seeking an inclusive education for their children who have disabilities, it is the same as being told, “We don’t enroll their kind here.”

The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), the Federal law which guides special education, mandates that all children have the right to a free, appropriate public education, regardless of disabilities. It also requires that children with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” or the setting in which children can participate with their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent possible.

As always, the devil is in the details. Sometimes parents reject the “least restrictive” placement, and have many good reasons for choosing to place their children in self-contained Special Day Classes. Sometimes districts discourage families from enrolling a child with disabilities in a general education classroom because they fear the child’s special needs will overwhelm the teacher and require more staff support to help that child achieve. Sometimes parents of non-disabled children protest when a child with disabilities is placed in their child’s classroom, believing that child will take away attention and resources from the rest of the class.

Another problem that affects the decision to place a child in a particular setting is ingrained attitudes and preconceived notions teachers and administrators in both general and special education have toward each other. Special education is seen as highly specialized, requiring separate training and teaching methods. Budgets are separate, making it difficult for the two groups to work together and cross-pollinate with each other’s ideas and methods.

What has resulted from these attitudes and organizational barriers is an educational system that offers “separate but equal” programs for students with disabilities—not out of any conscious desire to segregate, but out of a belief that students with disabilities are better served by educational programs designed expressly for them and delivered in a
special-education friendly environment.

Still, many parents and special education advocates believe inclusive placements are often in the best interests of all children, whether they are disabled or not. Children who attend inclusive programs grow up accepting everyone as members of their community, learning from a young age that everyone is unique, everyone has different minds and different abilities and that these differences are something to be celebrated, not something to be frightened of or hidden away.

But successful inclusion programs involve more than mere physical presence in the classroom. Successful inclusion takes careful attention and commitment to ensure that all children are treated as active members and participants of the school community. It takes strong leadership to bring together teachers, students, parents and administrators, and guide them in the development of a caring community where diversity is the norm.

Sadly, even here, in progressive, diverse San Francisco, full inclusion is regarded as more of a privilege than a right and special education students have second-class status. For now, most San Francisco parents of special education students choose not to get into a legal battle about their limited placement options, because winning entry to schools that have no experience in how to include children with disabilities and no experience in promoting the culture of inclusion is truly an empty victory.

The problem is widespread. In 2000, the National Council on Disability found that every state in the union was out of compliance with the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and that no officials were actively enforcing compliance.

In December, to commemorate National Inclusive Schools Week, the parents and staff at Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, a small public elementary school, decided to ask the children what they gained from their inclusion program. Students drew pictures and wrote essays around the theme “Together We’re Better”, to illustrate how important it is for children with and without disabilities to be friends, to help each other, and to be educated together. Seeing their efforts truly inspires hope that someday, every public school in San Francisco will accept and fully include children with disabilities.

Astrid, Grade 4

Daniella, Grade 2

Jared, Grade 2

Jeremy, Grade 2

Mackenzie, Grade 4

Zoe, Grade 2

A CD-ROM with all the “Together We’re Better” artwork and essays will be available for purchase at Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy’s Silent Auction on Saturday, March 18th between noon-4pm, at 4235 19th Street /Collingwood in San Francisco.

Katy Franklin is the parent of a child attending Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy. Rachel Powell Norton is a parent of two children attending Argonne Elementary School. Both are members of the San Francisco Community Advisory Committee for Special Education.

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