Special Needs News
Plan aims to integrate Palm Beach County Special-Needs Students as Much as Possible
Ohanian Comment: It is both ludicrous and damaging to say that one size fits all for special education students. A key word here is automatically.
Put Grace Rodriguez's autistic 10-year-old son anywhere near a regular classroom and he'll never make it. She says she twice placed R.J. in autism-support programs based at elementary schools and both times he floundered.
"I wish my child didn't have to be segregated, but that's OK with me," said Rodriguez, who is adamant that R.J. remain at the Royal Palm School for special-needs students west of Lantana. "I don't want anyone taking that option away from me. It makes me nervous."
Causing her uneasiness is a decision in May by the Palm Beach County School Board to come up with a plan within three years for full inclusion, putting children with disabilities in regular classrooms at all schools.
It's a goal cheered by special-education advocates who for years have fought against segregated environments.
"Every school has to be prepared to accept children of diverse disabilities," said Russ Feldman, executive director of Exceptional Student Education. "That is no easy task."
Two committees of parents and educators have been sorting out the details, but a key objective is ensuring "that no child is automatically excluded from consideration for inclusion," according to one blueprint.
"We are very far from that in the county right now," said Sue Davis-Killian, president of the Gold Coast Down Syndrome Organization and mother of an 8-year-old girl with the disability who is in a regular second-grade classroom.
A working draft of the plan -- calling for 100 percent of elementary school students, regardless of disability, to be placed in regular classrooms -- struck a nerve among some parents who participated in a recent discussion by the Exceptional Student Education Advisory Committee.
"I want him in a regular classroom, but I want him in a regular classroom when he can get there," said Reilly Pelkey of Loxahatchee, whose 5-year-old son is in a special class at Wellington Elementary for children with severe communication disorders.
To allay concerns that self-contained special-education programs would disappear, the draft ultimately was changed to read, "100 percent of schools will be structured to support inclusion." It removes the expectation that every disabled child will be in every regular classroom, but it leaves schools on the hook for including special-education students in general-education classes.
Or, as Feldman hopes, the inclusion plan will "get rid of some of the excuses that sometimes are used" by schools to shut out special-needs children.
"Years of battling," is how parent activist Karen Brill, who lives west of Boynton Beach, describes her own experience of securing a placement for her 15-year-old son, Matthew, who is diagnosed as high-functioning autistic, in a regular classroom with the support of an aide. "Too much energy went into fighting when we could have been educating."
A group called the School District Inclusion Committee is further refining the plan, which is to go to Superintendent Art Johnson next month. A final version could be submitted to the School Board early next year.
Davis-Killian thinks that if inclusive schools become commonplace, parents of disabled children would no longer favor or demand segregated settings. But, she acknowledges, "Some children may never be able to have their needs met in a regular classroom."
Most schools today offer some special-education programs or services, but they tend to be separate from regular classrooms and the students typically don't interact. At some schools, disabled students attend regular classes and also are separated for part of the day for therapy or special instruction.
There are about 25,000 special-education students among the system's 172,500 students -- roughly 14.5 percent of the kindergarten through 12th-grade population.
According to the district, 48 percent of special-education students spend at least 80 percent of their school week with regular-education students. An additional 34 percent spend 40 percent to 79 percent of their week with nondisabled students, with the rest of their time in a setting with only disabled students. Fourteen percent of students, typically ones with the most severe disabilities, are kept completely separate. That's lower than the state average of 22 percent.
Inclusion "is a meaningful goal to be pursued" and children with disabilities should be in regular education classrooms whenever possible, according to the Virginia-based Council for Exceptional Children, an advocacy group.
"We don't say every child should be included," spokeswoman Lynda Van Kuren said. "Children are not one size fits all."
The evolving debate about how far to take inclusion in Palm Beach County is in itself a victory for advocates who have spent decades fighting to integrate disabled children in public schools.
Thirty years ago, children with Down syndrome and many other disabilities were kept in isolated classrooms. That limited their intellectual growth because they learned little from their fellow students. But Congress passed the Individuals With Disabilities Act in 1975 and updated it in 1997, requiring disabled students to have not only an appropriate education, but also access to general education.
Across the Palm Beach County system, some schools are more progressive than others in fostering inclusive environments.
Park Vista High School, west of Boynton Beach, bills itself as "the all-inclusive high school." It's mainly a nod to the school's four career academies and rigorous curriculum featuring Advanced Placement honors courses. But there is a special-education program for 12 autistic students, who are learning life and academic skills in a two-room simulated apartment setting.
Educators say the keys to making inclusion work are extensive training of teachers, proper planning and making sure schools have supports for students with specific disabilities, such as equipment for the physically impaired.
"Full inclusion doesn't mean any child will be put into a placement that is not appropriate for them," said Terri Harmon, mother of a 17-year-old son with Down syndrome who attends Spanish River High School and has never been in a self-contained class. "Full inclusion means that every school will be structured so that all children are able to receive the services and supports they need without being forced into a segregated setting."
Marc Freeman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-243-6642.
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