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November 30, 2007

The special-education debate --- is mainstreaming good or bad for kids?

This recent front-page article from the Wall Street Journal raises some intriguing points in the debate over "mainstreaming" special-education children. It's an understandably emotional, complicated and thorny issue. What are your thoughts? I'd especially love to hear from teachers and parents on this one.

Here's an excerpt (click on the link below for the full article).

Parents of Disabled Students
Push for Separate Classes
By ROBERT TOMSHO
November 27, 2007; Page A1

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- Last fall, groups who favor placing disabled students in regular classrooms faced opposition from an unlikely quarter: parents like Norette Travis, whose daughter Valerie has autism.

Valerie had already tried the mainstreaming approach that the disability-advocacy groups were supporting. After attending a preschool program for special-needs students, she was assigned to a regular kindergarten class. But there, her mother says, she disrupted class, ran through the hallways and lashed out at others -- at one point giving a teacher a black eye.

"She did not learn anything that year," Ms. Travis recalls. "She regressed."

As policy makers push to include more special-education students into general classrooms, factions are increasingly divided. Advocates for the disabled say special-education students benefit both academically and socially by being taught alongside typical students. Legislators often side with them, arguing that mainstreaming is productive for students and cost-effective for taxpayers.

Some teachers and administrators have been less supportive of the practice, saying that they lack the training and resources to handle significantly disabled children. And more parents are joining the dissenters. People like Ms. Travis believe that mainstreaming can actually hinder the students it is intended to help. Waging a battle to preserve older policies, these parents are demanding segregated teaching environments -- including separate schools.

 

Parents of Disabled Students
Push for Separate Classes


By ROBERT TOMSHO
November 27, 2007; Page A1

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- Last fall, groups who favor placing disabled students in regular classrooms faced opposition from an unlikely quarter: parents like Norette Travis, whose daughter Valerie has autism.

Valerie had already tried the mainstreaming approach that the disability-advocacy groups were supporting. After attending a preschool program for special-needs students, she was assigned to a regular kindergarten class. But there, her mother says, she disrupted class, ran through the hallways and lashed out at others -- at one point giving a teacher a black eye.

"She did not learn anything that year," Ms. Travis recalls. "She regressed."

As policy makers push to include more special-education students into general classrooms, factions are increasingly divided. Advocates for the disabled say special-education students benefit both academically and socially by being taught alongside typical students. Legislators often side with them, arguing that mainstreaming is productive for students and cost-effective for taxpayers.

Some teachers and administrators have been less supportive of the practice, saying that they lack the training and resources to handle significantly disabled children. And more parents are joining the dissenters. People like Ms. Travis believe that mainstreaming can actually hinder the students it is intended to help. Waging a battle to preserve older policies, these parents are demanding segregated teaching environments -- including separate schools.

'Fully Included'

In 2005, more than half of all special-education students were considered mainstreamed, or "fully included," nationally. These students spent 80% or more of the school day in regular classrooms, up from about a third in 1990, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

"The burden is on school districts and states to give strong justification for why a child or group of children cannot be integrated," says Thomas Hehir, an education professor at Harvard and former director of special education at the U.S. Department of Education.

That point of view frustrates many parents. Some have struggled to get services from their local school districts; others have seen their disabled children falter in integrated settings.

Mary Kaplowitz, a special-education teacher in Kingston, Pa., was a bigger supporter of mainstreaming before she had her son, Zachary, who has autism and is mildly retarded. She says his preschool classmates rarely played with him and he came home from summer camp asking why the nondisabled children laughed at him. On a visit, she saw them drawing away from her son.

"They shunned him and it broke my heart," says Ms. Kaplowitz. Earlier this year, she and other parents fought successfully to preserve separate special-education classes in Kingston like the one Zachary, now 9 years old, attends at a local elementary school.

Such parental pushback has prompted local school districts across the country to delay or downsize mainstreaming initiatives.

Last year, parents of disabled kids in Walworth County, Wis., clashed with an advocacy group over the creation of a new special-education school. As part of the battle, Disability Rights Wisconsin sued the county in Milwaukee federal court to try to block the school. The new school is currently under construction and the lawsuit is under appeal.

And earlier this year, parents in Maryland's Montgomery County asked the state to continue a special-education program their school district was scheduled to discontinue. After initial protests, the district agreed to phase out the program -- letting enrolled kids continue -- rather than close it outright.

The debate has grown contentious in New Jersey, a state with a strong tradition of separate education for the disabled. Only about 41% of the state's 230,000 special-education students are deemed fully included, compared with 54% nationwide. About 9% of the state's disabled students -- triple the national average -- attend separate schools.

New Jersey passed some of the nation's first special-education laws. In the 1950s, it began requiring public schools to pay for special-ed services that they didn't offer. State law also gave counties and groups of school districts broad powers to build stand-alone schools for the disabled. Today, there are 80 publicly funded separate schools for the disabled in New Jersey and about 175 private ones. They receive tuition from public districts for handling special-ed students.

But in 2004, the state, which had faced federal pressure to mainstream, placed a year-long moratorium on the opening of new special-education schools. Since then, it has stiffened the approval process for private facilities and bolstered funding for local districts to broaden in-house programs.

In a budget-strapped state where voters have been demanding tax relief, cost has been a factor. On average, New Jersey spends about $16,100 a year on each special-education student, including those who are mainstreamed. The average annual tuition at the various, separate public schools for the disabled range from $28,500 to $42,000; at private schools, it's $44,000.

Overall, tuition and transportation costs for out-of-district placements accounted for 39% of the $3.3 billion a year that the state spends on special education. "That's a huge cost driver for our education budget," says state Sen. John Adler, who last year co-chaired hearings on school funding reform.

Many parents, including state Sen. Stephen Sweeney, bristle at moves that could foreclose their options. His daughter, Lauren, who has Down syndrome, attends a regular middle school. But Mr. Sweeney says her nondisabled classmates never visit or ask her to hang out. Next year, he's moving Lauren to a separate high school operated by the publicly funded Gloucester County Special Services School District. The system's special-education facilities also include a new $14 million school for children with autism and multiple disabilities.

'The Choice of Parents'

"Just to put my child in a building to make people feel better because it's inclusion is outrageous," says Mr. Sweeney. "As long as I am in the legislature, they are not going to take away the choice of parents with children with disabilities."

The school funding hearings, held in various towns and cities last fall, were emotional. Ruth Lowenkron, a special-education attorney, testified that beyond being the right thing to do, mainstreaming would save money. "Repeat after me," she told the legislators, "inclusion is cheaper than segregation."

But the panel also heard often from parents who argued for continued access to separate schools.

They included Adela Maria Bolet, of Teaneck, N.J., whose suit-clad son, Michael, sat beside his mother while she testified. The 17-year-old, who has Down syndrome, now attends a private high school on the state's tab. In earlier years, Ms. Bolet fought to get Michael into regular public schools only to find that he sometimes became depressed and had little positive interaction with nondisabled peers.

Until high school, he had few friends, says Ms. Bolet. Her voice still quivers when she talks about what happened when the family rented a pool in town and invited classmates from Michael's neighborhood elementary school to a swimming party for his 13th birthday. "Nobody came," she says.

Concurrent with the funding hearings, another debate was boiling at New Jersey's publicly funded Middlesex Regional Education Services Commission. It had already supported and built a network of six special-education schools, and planned to open two more, including a 24-classroom facility. The commission, controlled by a consortium of school districts, had built its other schools using bonds guaranteed by Middlesex County's governing board. Its school projects had never faced significant opposition.

This time was different, as the proposed schools became a target for mainstreaming advocates. Critics like William England, a school board member in South River, N.J., wrote to local papers. To endorse the sort of segregated special-education schools that most of the country is busy abandoning would be "a waste of county resources," he said in a letter to the Home News Tribune, East Brunswick, N.J.

Mark Finkelstein, the Middlesex commission's superintendent, scoffs at such criticism. He estimates his schools save local districts $10 million a year over the cost of placement in privately owned facilities. "It's easy to say that all kids should be in mainstream schools but let's talk reality," he says.

On a recent morning at the Bright Beginnings Learning Center -- one of the Middlesex schools -- a hallway painted mint-green was lined with children's wheelchairs and walkers. In one classroom, a teacher and four aides were working with seven disabled students, most strapped into devices designed to help them stand or sit.

Mary Lou Walker, an aide, crouched beside the desk of Teresa Condora, a petite 7-year-old who suffers from cerebral palsy and is largely nonverbal. "All right T, come on," Ms. Walker said, gently urging the girl to press a big red plastic button attached to a buzzer. Responding with a soft moan, Teresa pushed against the button as though it were impossibly heavy.

Factions Face Off

Last September, pro- and anti-mainstreaming factions faced off at a meeting where the fate of the proposed new Middlesex schools was to be decided.

At the microphone that evening, Paula Lieb, president of the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education, cited multiple examples of severely disabled children who had been successfully mainstreamed. She said that "the vast majority of children can be included in the public schools."

But the parents of children already attending the commission's schools had also been organizing, urging each other to come to the hearing and bring their disabled children.

Sandy Epstein's family had moved to New Jersey from Oregon a decade earlier to take advantage of specialized schools for students like her son, Brandon, who has autism. For the hearing, the 48-year-old homemaker dressed her teenager in a bright red polo shirt and sat near the front. "I wanted him to stand out," she says. "I wanted these politicians to see what we are talking about."

Ms. Travis, a 41-year-old bookkeeper from Milltown, N.J., says that while waiting to speak that night, she grew angry with the criticisms of the inclusion advocates. She thought they had no idea what her daughter Valerie, now 11, needed.

The Travises had spent eight months on a waiting list to get Valerie into the Academy Learning Center, one of the Middlesex schools located in Monroe Township, N.J.

During that time, she says, the progress Valerie had made learning to speak all but disappeared. Along with reports of her outbursts at school, Ms. Travis says the family had to cope with frequent meltdowns at home. Valerie slept fitfully, ripped up her homework and beat up her little brother to the point that he once needed stitches.

"It was the worst eight months of our lives," Ms. Travis told the county officials, adding that families like hers needed schools like the Academy, where Valerie is now learning geography and double-digit subtraction.

Mr. Finkelstein believes parents' testimony helped convince county officials to unanimously back the bonds needed for the new construction, which is under way.

"If inclusion worked for all of our residents," the superintendent says, "they wouldn't be fighting so hard for these new schools."

Their efforts are far from over. In June, a coalition of disability-rights groups sued the New Jersey education department in U.S. District Court in Newark. Taking a page from the racial desegregation battles of the 1960s, it alleges the department isn't moving fast enough to integrate disabled students and asks the federal court to take over the process.

Write to Robert Tomsho at rob.tomsho@wsj.com

Posted by Gina Davis at 1:00 PM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Around the Nation, Parents, SpecialEd, Teaching, Trends
        

Comments

None of this negates the fact that, by federal law, IEP Teams are required to at least CONSIDER the inclusive setting at each meeting. Too many people interpret this to mean "You have to try to mainstream the kid before sending them to a more restrictive setting."

In general I agree with this, but I have also been known to recommend a student for a special program--even a separate day school--for a student on their first IEP. As long as it can be documented that the student is more successful in the more restrictive setting, then there should be no problem with it at all. Documentation is definitely the key, because when IEP teams compose anything regarding their students, they should consider that an Administrative Law Judge could be reading it at some point.

The other thing that both parents and teams seem to forget all too often is that if a student's IEP isn't successful, you're not locked into it for the entire year. Look at all these stories about how a student basically lost a year's worth of education over thinking like this. The team can always meet again and try something different.

Sara Neufeld and I recently had an email conversation about a student in such a situation. At each meeting for this student there was another little bit of information that was revealed until the team finally got a reasonably complete picture of the student, who admittedly was rather complicated from a diagnosis standpoint. It was like peeling away the layers of an artichoke, finally getting to the heart of the matter.

Sadly, the best answer to the question of inclusion is "it depends". But that's what IEPs and teams are for.

My youngest daughter got some WAY early intervention (she was in a Krieger study just after her second birthday) and because of that is in a normal pre-K class with some additional assistance here and there. But that's my daughter and her case; I can think of at least three or so of her earlier peers that might still not be set for such a task.

Is inclusion possible? Certainly. Is it the preferred option? For those crunching the numbers, probably, but not necessarily for the children, and not necessarily for their parents.

The term "inclusion" has become so "the thing" in public schools that too many students are often pushed into the "mainstream" classroom before they are ready. There are two issues that I always considered during IEP meetings. For the majority of the children with an IEP, intelligence was not the problem at all! They very easily could compete with and even do better academically than many of the regular education students. I will always remember one of my favorite students my second year teaching was a young man with an IEP full of various recommendations. That young man was the only student I had, in both years of teaching, who never got below a 95 each grading quarter.

The other main issue, however, is behavior. For some of the children with disability, the disability does not affect their academic skills, but does prevent them from feeling comfortable in a big classroom setting with upwards of 35 students and only one teacher available to help them all. I always lovingly said that all my students in my BCPSS "mainstream" classroom were special - just some were more special than others. The news article shares the story of Valerie - it was quite frustrating for me to know that a capable and smart young woman like Valerie would have academically done very well had she been placed in a smaller setting with an educator who had special training and experience for how best to reach Valerie. Well, that and not being the only adult in a classroom with 35 children minimum.

Ultimately, mainstreaming is absolutely the way to go for SOME children. But education is an art, not a science, and there is no panacea that will ever work for every child. For these disability rights advocacy groups to throw all their support behind only one way (mainstreaming) in education shows how little they know about the complicated and beautiful art that is teaching/reaching a child.

In theory, I absolutely support inclusion. In real life, it hasn't worked so well for my son.

First of all, we didn't know he had a right to inclusion. We didn't know the questions to ask, period. So he ended up in a segregated, structured special ed. classroom. The first year was great. He made academic gains and seemed very happy.

Then,in first grade, we asked he be placed in inclusive classrooms for non-academic subjects with an aide. By the second semester, it became apparent he was slipping behind academically in his special ed. classes.

He didn't have any friends among the peers without disabilities. He was invited to 1 birthday party of a non-disabled peer (God bless that little girl and her parents!) but no other classmates with disabilities came and the other children stayed away from my son. They weren't actively mean to him - they just gave him a wide berth.

Despite all this, he seemed happy enough with his peers in the special education classroom; he was a bubbly, outgoing, talkative boy.

At his year end IEP, we pressed for appropriate services in the public school. Instead, he was given private placement in a non-public school.

Our contention all along, no matter where he goes to school, is that everyone consider the whole child - not just the academic gains or his emotional well-being but the totality of our son as a person.

In the public school, our son was more well-adjusted with better manners and generally happier, but didn't receive appropriate levels of OT and ST. He also couldn't seem to learn to read.

In the non-public school, while they have more OT and ST and he is making progress academically, he is having behavior problems.

A stark difference is the culture of the non-public school versus the public school. The non-public school has a very unwelcome attitude towards parent involvement, and even to questions and concerns that parents may raise. Hard though it may be to believe, the public school was better on these issues.

The non-public school director has said repeatedly that we are welcome to take our child out of her school since she has a waiting list, whenever we have brought up concerns. (Our biggest concern was the revolving door that teachers were on in 2006/07: 3 teachers quit in 1 year.) Thankfully, the teacher situation seems to have stabilized. Yet, they still seem ill-equipped to deal with behavior problems.

Why can't we find a situation where he is happy AND can receive an appropriate education and related services?

"Mainstreaming" (such an archaic term) may not be the answer for everyone, but I have a 4th grade Asperger's daughter for whom my husband and I am constantly fighting battles. She was removed from her home public school in kindergarten for disruptive behavior. She's since been in two public special ed programs that 'could do no more for her'. We managed to get her placed back in her home public school for 4th grade with an aide. Because of their lack of training and resources, they are again seeking nonpublic placement. These schools (at least in Carroll County, MD) deal with autism from a mental illness/behavioral perspective which is not right. Physical restraint and seclusion rooms are methods used which only further escalate my daughter's behavior. Even worse, there are very few if any girls (all boy classes). What is truly needed nationwide is awareness and education for all. My daughter's greatest need is to be around typical female peers to learn proper social behavior and boundaries - critical to her becoming a productive part of our community, which she is absolutely capable of becoming. By the way, she wasn't liked any more in the special ed programs than she is in the general ed arena. I invited special ed and typical kids to her 6th birthday and only one child showed up (and soon left when there wasn't anyone else there). My daughter would be in a gifted and talented program if it weren't for her social deficits (anger and frustration driven tantrums). I believe that choice is every parent's right but a child should not be forced into an alternative education setting if it cannot adequately provide what she/he needs any better than her public home school. For our situation, home schooling would be the best choice but having lost out on early diagnosis/intervention and a having to now maintain two-incomes (cost of medical, housing, bills, etc.), this is not a choice for us. I guess the battle goes on...

I have an 11 yr. old daughter with Asperger's & live in Carroll Co. Would like to connect with Christine if she is interested.Thanks, Melissa

I had the opportunity to work as a Teacher’s Assistant for the 2008-2009 school year. This required that I work directly with one young man. He was having much the same success at mainstreaming as Valerie. It was decided that he must be transferred to another school which had an Emotionally Disabilities department. The young man began to thrive and to succeed in behavior in socializing and work ethic.
I believe that this young man’s success was a direct result of the transfer to a facility that new haw and would use mainstreaming correctly. The previous school seemed to just operate as a baby sitter and they were at their wits end. My guy was beginning to learn even worse behaviors.
I think that mainstreaming is a valid practice but it needs to be done correctly and on an individualized basis. At the first school my guy was treated like a child with autism, whereas after transfer he was appropriately dealt with as Oppositionaly Defiant.

I'm a regular education teacher. I have students mainstreamed into my class every year. My opinion is that it needs to be done far more judiciously than it is done now- if six exceptional children are put in my class, that is the equivalent of putting an entire special ed classroom into my regular class. I personally feel like these kids are shortchanged- some of them are good kids who need an adult close by and able to give more focused attention. In a class of 30+, this isn't going to happen consistently. And some of the ones who come to me have legally imposed modifications, some of which have little or no bearing on what I teach, so I am not allowed to handle my class in a way I think it should be done. That impairs my efficiency as an educator. Also, some have so many modifications that for all intents and purposes they are merely taking a special ed class whose physical location just happens to be in a regular classroom. From my point of view, mainstreaming is not a terrible idea, but it is lamentable in its execution, and because of that, damaging in its results.

We need to work on the construction of better programs for special needs kids. I have one special needs child who is about to be placed into a regular classroom. I'm terrified something bad will happen, he won't learn or he is going to lose everything we've tried to hard to teach him.

I think mainstream is not that much good for our kids. There must be some changes for getting out their best from them.

Unfortunately, when you have kids with special needs, you anticipate the social difficulties that come with them. It may not be right, but I think parents should be expecting a harder time socializing their children... mainstream or not.

I don't think it's a matter of being "mainstream" so much as changing individuals perceptions on special need children. Most children today are fairly open-minded about other kids that are different.

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