The largest grant ever received by Kansas University will establish a national center aiming to transform the way children with disabilities are taught in America’s schools, KU officials announced Wednesday.
The $24.5 million, five-year grant awarded to KU’s Life Span Institute by the U.S. Department of Education will create the Technical Assistance Center for Inclusive School-Wide Reform.
“It is a remarkable investment in the University of Kansas and the work that we do in special education,” said Tim Caboni, KU’s vice chancellor for public affairs.
Wayne Sailor, a professor of special education based at the Life Span Institute, will serve as the lead investigator for the grant project. He said the project would be based on research he and others had conducted for about 20 years, which shows that students with disabilities are better off when they’re taken out of separate special education classrooms and placed alongside other students.
Since a federal law in the 1970s established special education programs in the country’s schools, those students have been segregated in separate classrooms, Sailor said. And research shows that model does not work, he said.
“That’s a model that doesn’t work,” Sailor said.
“We basically have been doing special education the same way in 2012 that we did in 1974,” Sailor said.
The project will involve KU’s Center for Research on Learning and its special education department along with the Beach Center on Disability based at the Life Span Institute — as well as a group of other universities and organizations from throughout the country.
The project will concentrate on the concept of inclusion, Sailor said — the teaching of special-education students and other students side-by-side in grade-level classrooms. Sailor has helped implement such a system in schools in a few cities across the country, including New Orleans and Washington, D.C.
Rather than separating students into regular and special-education classrooms, Sailor said, those schools evaluate students individually to determine what kind of education they might need.
In an elementary classroom in one of these schools, one might see a grade-level teacher and a special education teacher teaching together, he said, with one teaching at the front of the classroom and another circulating to talk with students individually. Students with more severe disabilities might exit the class for a short time to work with a speech therapist or a paraprofessional, then return.
Sailor said research and experience suggested the system benefits not only special education students but also other students who might now receive more specialized instruction in some areas.
“We think it’s actually a better way of doing education across the board,” Sailor said.
To try to spread that system, the new center will hire a force of technical assistants that will spread across the country — accounting for the bulk of the project’s cost.
“This is a pretty labor-intensive project,” Sailor said.
During the first year, those assistants will visit schools where the inclusion model is already practiced. Starting in the second year, they will spread out to a total of 64 schools in four states, in a mixture of rural and urban areas, to train educators on how to implement the new system.
The goal will be for those schools to spread the system to others in their districts, then to other districts in their state. And if the program performs well, it could be renewed at the end of the five-year period, Sailor said, allowing it to spread the system to other states.
Eventually — and this would take many, many years, Sailor said — he would like the program to help transform schools across the country. The program will focus only on students in kindergarten through eighth grade, though.
Other ideas the center will push for include increased engagement with students’ parents and the use of all school workers, from custodians to librarians, for educational purposes rather than just teachers.
The grant will only further distinguish KU’s top-ranked special education department, said Caboni — who previously was an associate dean at the education school of Vanderbilt University, one of KU’s chief competitors in special education.
“It says if one is interested in special-education inclusion and interventions, then the best place in the nation to do that work is the University of Kansas,” Caboni said.