Archive for Saturday, October 26, 1991

SPECIAL STUDENTS JOIN THE MAINSTREAM

October 26, 1991

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When Hillcrest School officials first talked to Saunny Scott about taking her daughter out of her special education class to spend some time with a regular fourth-grade class, she was against the idea.

"I was opposed to it because she has such dysfunctional behavior. I was afraid that kids would make fun of her," said Scott, whose daughter, Beatrice, has cerebral palsy and uses a walker. "I really felt like it would be a waste of time for her to be in a regular classroom."

Today, two years later, Scott has changed her mind. She's glad to see 11-year-old Beatrice joining other sixth-graders in recess, lunch, music class, art class and the sixth-grade teacher's storytelling time.

Beatrice has learned from the other students what is acceptable classroom behavior, Scott said.

Also, she said, "I think she sees herself now as part of the school. Even though she's still closer to kids in her special education room, she identifies the regular students as her friends when she sees them around town and in other activities."

Likewise, Scott said, the sixth-grade students identify with Beatrice, to the extent that when Scott told one sixth-grader that she might keep Beatrice from going on to junior high school next year, the student protested that "Bea is part of the class."

IT WAS ABOUT three years ago that the Lawrence school district began stepping up efforts to "mainstream" special education students into regular classroom settings.

Don Herbel, the district's director of special education, said that of the district's 8,944 students, about 920 students, or 10.3 percent, have been identified as having some kind of disability.

Nearly half of those students, 419, are learning disabled, which means that they have average or above average intelligence but have weaknesses in certain areas. Herbel said those students traditionally have spent most of their time in the regular classroom, sometimes receiving as little as an hour of special instruction per week.

What has changed about that special instruction, Herbel said, is that "we have been emphasizing more bringing the special education teacher into the regular classroom rather than pulling the student out of the class.

"We think it's probably much better for the kid's self-esteem not to have that undue attention called to the fact that he has some learning problems."

SOME STUDENTS with purely physical disabilities and others with moderate mental disabilities also have been able to spend most of their time in regular classrooms.

However, students with mild or severe mental disabilities, who today number about 82 in the district, and students with behavior disorders, who now number 132, spent little or no time in the regular classroom before the push for mainstreaming.

Students with mild or severe disabilities still are concentrated at Hillcrest and Cordley schools, but rather than remaining in self-contained classrooms all day long, some students spend part of the day with other students. Mainstreaming often is more for socialization purposes rather than academic ones, and a special education teacher or paraprofessional often will assist the regular education teacher.

"The regular classroom teacher and the special teacher are working more closely together," Herbel said. "We try to make sure that the special teacher confers with the regular classroom teacher and plans things ahead of time."

CAROL Abrahamson, who teaches third grade at Hillcrest, said the children with disabilities are not the only ones who benefit.

"It's good for the regular education kids too because they learn how to appreciate differences," Abrahamson said. However, she said, "At Hillcrest, we have to work really hard at tolerance training. It's not always a natural thing for kids to accept someone who is different."

Herbel said the district wants students with disabilities to have peers who are "age appropriate."

Some teen-age students with mental disabilities have attended Central and West junior high schools instead of Hillcrest and Cordley. And this year, for the first time, high school-aged students with severe mental disabilities are at Lawrence High School instead of Hillcrest.

Donna Collins, whose 16-year-daughter, Suzie, has cerebral pulsy, said she appreciated that switch.

"Suzie's thrilled at the fact that she goes to the high school because, like most 16-year-old girls, she absolutely loves looking at guys," Collins said. Also, Collins said, it meant more to her daughter to attend an LHS football game several weeks ago because she now feels that LHS is her school.

While many have seen benefits to mainstreaming, some teachers are concerned about the classroom burden that might be placed on them should the concept be carried further. And some parents of children with disabilities are concerned that their children someday could be totally mainstreamed even if it isn't in the children's best interest.

SAID Abrahamson, "The trend is toward doing away with more and more of the isolated classes and putting special education students in the regular classes, and the regular teachers have not been trained to deal with that.

"Teachers want to be able to teach all children, but there are limitations based on their knowledge and expertise and on the amount of time that they have to plan."

Abrahamson said she has no problem with students with mental disabilities visiting her classroom for activities such as storytelling.

"But if I had these same students in my room for reading instruction, it would be difficult to figure out how to incorporate them without really draining my energies," Abrahamson said.

She added that while some students with disabilities might enjoy spending the whole day in the regular classroom, others might prefer to retreat occasionally to a special education room where social and academic pressures aren't so great.

"School districts I think have to be flexible because what helps one child does not help another," Abrahamson said.

COLLINS SAID that while her daughter enjoys meeting LHS students, "She'd never be happy in a regular classroom full time. She'd be very self-conscious."

"I get real upset with parents that say, `Let's integrate our children completely.' I think it's got to be a totally individual thing, completely different with each child," Collins said.

However, others think that such complete integration, sometimes referred to as "full inclusion," does not necessarily stand in the way of meeting individual needs.

"I think I'm meeting more needs than ever before," said Janelle Smythe, who as a third-grade teacher in the Parsons school district has seen full inclusion first-hand.

Four years ago, the Parsons district became involved in Supported Integration, a state project to reform the traditional approach of providing special education services.

Parsons now is adhering to the formal position of the Kansas Department of Education, which says, "Removal from regular education can only be made when it can be documented that a student cannot, even with supplementary aides and services available within the public school, achieve satisfactory educational progress commensurate with the student's potential."

AS IN LAWRENCE, about 10 percent of Parsons' students districtwide have disabilities. And, said Parsons School Supt. John Hetlinger, the district has no self-contained special education classrooms for grades kindergarten through eight. Instead, special education teachers now assist the regular classroom teacher in adapting curriculum to meet the educational needs of students with disabilities.

"This project was first approached with apprehension, very legitimate apprehension, among both teachers and parents," Hetlinger said. "It was something that had to be worked at. We had a lot of teacher in-service training because the teachers had to be retaught."

Hetlinger said that hard work has paid off.

"The teachers have learned so many new methodologies. . . . We've set up a framework for student productivity that I don't think is present in most classrooms," Hetlinger said.

Smythe said activities such as peer tutoring, in which students drill each other on their lessons, and at their ability level, provides help beyond that of the teacher aides.

"IT'S LIKE having another pair of hands," she said.

Smythe has seen students with behavior disorders removed from class for inappropriate conduct. However, Smythe said, after spending time in a resource room away from the regular class, such students often will show an immediate improvement in behavior.

Smythe said she thinks full inclusion could work "for 99 percent of students."

Betty Weithers, leader of the special outcomes team at the Kansas Department of Education, said some students might never be suited for the regular classroom. However, she said, "There should be very, very few of those students."

Hetlinger said that while special education students at the high school might not sit in on geometry and physics classes, they do engage in activities with the rest of the student body. Special education students at the high shcool level spend a lot of time developing vocational skills, Hetlinger said.

NORMA DYCK, professor of special education at Kansas State University and a Lawrence resident, likes that idea.

"Some of these youngsters who have severe disabilities are needing a more vocationally oriented curriculum," Dyck said. "What they need more than studying world history is studying how to get and keep a job."

Meanwhile, Abrahamson said she can envision the broadening of mainstreaming in Lawrence given smaller class sizes and additional classroom assistance.

"If I had my choice, I would rather have quite a small class with variety in it and make that work," she said.

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