An article in the London Times discusses a radical shift from a policy of inclusion from the largest teacher union inGreat Britain. I recently published a letter from Georgia’s office of Developmental Disabilities that drew one comment from an irate parent who might share in the views of the National Union of Teachers (NUT?!?)
There is something to be said for having specialized schools for children with severe disabilities. When I was working in the psychoed center, it was a wonderful experience, or at least as good as it could get working with students with severe emotional behavioral disabilities. Everyone there knew their jobs, everyone there was pulling in the same direction and we all had the same training. We all knew the procedures, and could operate as a finely tuned operation despite times of craziness and chaos. Yes, there was stress, but never once did I have to question the dedication and support of our building administrator who helped restrain kids when needed or helped with other interventions side-by-side with us paras and teachers. We were all in this together. If a kid needed shoes, clothes or food, we all pulled together and were able to make provision the kids in our care. We had volunteers come in to help teach music and art to the students and they were given an enriched environment. We had kids who had several seizure a day, and everyone knew what to do. Contrast this with my own recent experience where all the administrators and resource officers seemed to lose their heads.
Before coming to Magnolia County I worked in a state mental hospital that had a special facility for caring for those with profound and multiple disabilities. Those residents had nurses, doctors, therapists, teachers and an entire array of services at their disposal. There was absolutely no doubt that those students were well taken care of.
In regular public education, people are pulled from the streets with no specialized training to care for students with extensive needs. PT, OT, speech and adaptive PE services are all itinerate services, with overworked therapists traveling from school-to-school. The transportation system is stretched to the limit having to haul special needs students all over the county because not every school offers every service. The director of special education transportation has spent hours lamenting with me privately about how hard it is to coordinate getting these kids to all of these schools. (Why can’t they have just one special school for all of these kids?” she has asked me over and over. And I explain about the law and LRE and how parents seem to be under the impression that their students are better off at their home school. Some of these parents are surprised and dismayed at what they find.
Having specialized personnel under one roof offers benefits to the students and the staff. The administrators in such specialized schools either know what they are getting in to or find out very quickly. With professionals housed together, there is a much greater chance of collaboration occurring between the various disciplines. I can see and talk with the PT and OT together during lunch, as opposed to them spending their lunch time traveling between the various schools scattered throughout the county. We can provide better linkage to community agencies because they don’t have to keep track of several buildings, teachers and programs. If a teacher leaves, chances are that there are several other experienced teachers in the building to help mentor and train the new teachers and paras.
As it is, Magnolia County is currently looking for 2 severe and profound teachers to teach at the high school level. The Southside’s teacher is moving to a different program serving moderate kids, and the new school that is opening needs a teacher. Mr. Pyle is looking to leave the severe and profound field. That means there is only one SID/PID high school teacher left in the county familiar with our kids and our business. ME. The new school is nearly 20 miles away which will make it difficult to be able to just saunter over to help support and train a new person like when the new person started at the Southside school.
Magnolia County is also looking for PT, OT and SLPs. The burn-out rate is high for those who have to serve students at several schools simply because of the travel involved. OTs are often forced to work with individual children in a closet or in hallways because it is a low incidence service in each individual school. With only 3 or 4 students at each school getting OT, why should a school dedicate precious space for a therapy area?
This is not to say that inclusion does not have its place. Both of my kids are included, but they are able to walk, talk, use the bathroom, feed themselves and they do not have specialized healthcare needs. Compared to what I do, Thomas and Percy have relatively mild issues that have a direct bearing on their educational progress.
“The Cambridge researchers interviewed teachers, children and parents at 20 schools in seven local authorites. They concluded that the reality of inclusion was very far from the “world of fine intentions” inhabited by policymakers. “While there are many examples of social benefits both for children with special needs and their peers, there is much less positive evidence that learning needs are being met across the whole spectrum of ability,” the report said.
I think this is the main point: inclusion in theory is vastly different from the inclusion of reality for many students. For community-based programs like ours, being in the regular school setting is much less critical because we spend most of our time in the community setting, anyway. I’m not so much in favor of segregation as much as trying to increase the availability and quality of services for students with extensive needs. As it is, special education has become highly balkanized, and resources are stretched over a vast area instead of being concentrated to the point of need. And like it or not, resources are limited. That’s just a fact of life. There is not unlimited time, unlimited money and unlimited people with specialized training. It is unrealistic to expect every single school building to serve students with specialized needs and to do it well.
But Lord Adonis, the Schools Minister, said: “Children should be taught in mainstream schools where this is what their parents want and it is not incompatible with the efficient education of other children.”
It is true that this is what parents want, but I’m not sure if parents realize that they have been sold a tainted bill of goods. In the world of limited resources and the push for accountability, special education students are the minority. One of the provisions of NCLB is that failing schools do get more latitude in how they spend money that is otherwise earmarked for special services and programs. Any guess as to who might get shortchanged in the process? Not the kids taking those high stakes tests.
Regular education has enough problems managing the students that they have who are “normal.” Dumping students with severe disabilities on them and saddling them with various modifications is not going to enhance education for anyone. Rethinking inclusion is a first step. Common sense should indicate that no one solution works for every person and especially for those with disabilities. Parents do need to think about outcomes that go beyond the social benefits and more towards getting their students to function as independently as possible. Those mainstream friends they make at school are not going to be the ones to suction their trachs or catheterize them or change their nappies (the Brits are cute that way!) nor are they going to drive them to the doctors or to a job or even to other social events outside of school. I’ll write more on this later, but when graduation day comes, all that social interaction isn’t going to amount to a hill of beans. I would rather have a few places that handled exceptionalities very well than have all of the neighborhood schools handling these students very poorly. And this is the choice we are faced with. Not all schools can be all things for all people.