School Beat: National Inclusive Schools Week and A Testimonial to A General Education Teacher

by Katy Franklin & Jeanne Villafuerte on December 9, 2010

Today, Thursday, December 9th, at noon on the East Steps of City Hall, a mayoral proclamation will be read to commemorate San Francisco’s commitment to inclusive practices for people with disabilities and to establish an annual inclusive schools week in San Francisco. Inclusive schools educate children with disabilities in general education classrooms, alongside their typical peers, instead of placing them in segregated classrooms.

In 1975, the passage of Public Law 94-142 (which later became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (I.D.E.A.) guaranteed every child with a disability access to a public education in the school they would attend if not disabled. Now, 35 years later, during the Board of Education Ad Hoc Committee on Assignment meeting on November 8, 2010, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) announced that all Students going into transitional grades, (Kindergarten, 6th & 9th) with inclusion designations on their Individualized Education Plans (IEPS) may now apply to any school in SFUSD.

In 2005, when I was looking for a Kindergarten class for my son who has autism, 65% of SFUSD’s schools banned my child from attending. To me this was not just a special education issue; it was a civil rights issue. (See Previous BeyondChron articles
School Beat: Is Inclusive Education a Privilege or a Right?” and
School Beat: The State of Inclusion in SFUSD.”)

It is promising that SFUSD appears to be moving forward at last to make all schools in San Francisco inclusive schools and to promote inclusive practices, as evidenced by Stan Goldberg’s recent interview with Assistant Superintendent of Special Education Services Cecelia Dodge and Deputy Superintendent Richard Carranza.

To support this new commitment to inclusion, it is imperative for the Board of Education to develop and include in its policies a clear definition that states what inclusion is (and almost as important, what inclusion isn’t), so disagreements and misunderstandings among district staff and families are avoided as much as possible. To implement this new vision well, staff and the community need clarity and guidance.

The required change in practices and perceptions required are significant, as evidenced by the fact that non-inclusive practices still occur at schools that have had inclusion programs for years. School staff mistakenly think that they can choose whether or not to include children in their classes or on field trips. Staff misguidedly think that inclusion means treating everybody the same way, but it’s more about respecting people’s differences. Equity means recognizing and realizing that you cannot have equal treatment in unequal situations.

In the end, inclusion is about consideration, regard, and humanity, and nothing illustrates that as beautifully as this letter below does, written to a teacher at Lafayette Elementary School:

December 1, 2010

In Honor of National Inclusive Schools’ Week: A Testimonial to my Granddaughter’s General Education Teacher – I am Grateful for Your Inclusive Practices – Thank You

Dear Mrs. Yin,

Thank you, Mrs. Yin, for your outstanding dedication to inclusive practices. At this special time of year – a time to be Thankful and Joyful and recognize National Inclusive Schools Week – it is important I acknowledge how appreciative I am of your commitment to inclusive practices for Marcella, my beautiful granddaughter.

Little did I know when I was the principal of West Portal School – one of the first schools to implement inclusive practices – I would have a grandchild who would be an “inclusion student.”

Our school became one of the original San Francisco Unified School District schools for inclusive education – driven by the hope of one family for their two children to attend the same school. We honored that hope and nurtured an inclusion model for our students, earning national recognition for inclusive practices.

It gives me great pleasure to recognize you, Mrs. Yin, whom I believe is a teacher deserving of national recognition for your inclusive practices for children with disabilities.

You include Marcella in a very positive manner, unifying the special education and regular education systems:

• After you observed Marcella in the classroom at the beginning of the year, you recognized her physical needs and readjusted the classroom space to accommodate her walker and her needs to ambulate throughout the learning environment.

• You do a preview of field trips – talking to her and her family about the physical environments and some of the difficulties she may encounter and discuss strategies to resolve those difficulties.

• If there is a ramp for Marcella, you use it for all of the children. If the terrain is too adverse, you find another way for the class to travel, ensuring Marcella is not excluded.

• You promote communication for families so everyone is aware of upcoming programs and activities. (Your classroom blog with delightful pictures tells the story of your inclusive classroom.) You welcome families into the classroom – and encourage volunteering and visitation. You consistently communicate through e-mail – building trust and promoting inclusion by informing Marcella’s family of activities so they can help prepare her for school experiences.

• You work closely with the classroom paraprofessional to accommodate instruction to meet Marcella’s special needs. You also work with her special support teachers in an effort to learn more about how she learns and what strategies you can use to support her learning.

• You listen – to Marcella – and her family. When you learned of Marcella’s fears regarding Halloween masks – you devised a plan with her to ward off the “scary ones.” With your guidance, Marcella constructed a “shield” she could hold in front of her when a “scary one” approached. This shield and your encouragement worked so well that she was able – for the first time – participate in the Halloween school activities and in Trick or Treat activities at home.

• You take ownership of Marcella’s school classroom program – not passing her off to support staff as a “special education” student.

• You don’t allow bullying or “put-downs” and promote kindness and caring as an integral part of your classroom. You create a safe learning environment for your students.

I observe so many good teaching strategies when I visit Room 106 – speaking at a pace that benefits young children – providing adequate wait time – varying activities so students need not sit too long – building on children’s strengths and recognizing different abilities – and being well-planned so instructional time is maximized.

How lucky and truly beneficial for Marcella she has a teacher who goes beyond these excellent teaching strategies to build an inclusive community where all children are valued equally and a child with special needs is valued as much as any other student in the class.

Thank you, Mrs. Yin, for being that teacher.

Yours truly,
Jeanne Villafuerte, aka “Gigi”

Katy Franklin is a parent and Chair of the SFUSD San Francisco Community Advisory Committee for Special Education (CAC SPED), Jeanne Villafuerte is a Grandmother and 1st Vice Chair of the CAC SPED.

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