Illinois ranks 48th in the nation in including special education students in general classrooms, and that fact confronts Dr. Paula Kluth every day.
Kluth, a consultant to East Maine Elementary District 63 author of the book, “You’re Going to Love This Kid – Teaching Students With Autism in the Inclusive Classroom,” champions including special ed kids in academic classrooms boosts their academic performance.
“We have really missed the boat on giving a well-rounded education to a whole group with a wide range of disabilities,” Kluth said.
District 63 looking at Special Ed
It's a pertinent topic at East Maine District 63. The district is under a state mandate, originated in turn with the federal government, to improve the quality of inclusive education for the 14 percent of district students who are classified as special-ed with physical or intellectual disabilities.
“We’re looking at individual students that we can include more in the mainstream than in the past,” said Dr. Scott Clay, District 63 superintendent.
“The state gives us reports on our data on students in different kinds of placements. The reports said we’re too restrictive (in inclusive education) compared to what the state would like us to do. They show whether they’re in the regular classroom 80 percent of the time or more or if they’re excluded all the time. We also know many students do better if they’re around the general-ed population as much as possible.”
Illinois built separate classroom for special ed in 1970s
Inclusive education was first developed in the 1970s to enable special-ed students, previously segregated in their own classrooms or own schools, to develop sociability skills if allowed to experience as much general education as possible. In recent years inclusive education took the next step – to emphasize academic development among special-ed students attending general-education classes.
In charge of implementing more inclusive programs on a day-to-day basis over a five-year span is Mary Meduna, director of special services for District 63, who hosted a talk Kluth gave recently at Melzer School in Morton Grove.
Teaching the teachers about inclusiveness
“How do we help teachers identify the needs of kids and the supports they need in order to make progress?” Meduna said. “How can they do that in the general-education classroom as much as possible?”
If District 63’s schools have to play some catch-up ball with the desired standards of inclusive education, they’re merely following the state’s trends. Illinois ranks 48th among states in inclusive education, meaning students with disabilities are segregated from the general-education population far more than the normal. Root case was a significant building program for separate special-ed schools in the 1970s, just as the concept of inclusive education was being developed elsewhere.
“What Illinois did was perceived as revolutionary at the time,” Meduna said. “Illinois got a lot of kudos for this. Illinois reveled in its brilliance. Meanwhile, other states found ways to not build schools, but to get kids into (existing) schools.”
Current law states separate classes or schooling will be provided only if the nature of the student’s disability cannot be accommodated in general-education classes with “supplementary aids and services.”
Need to train older teachers on including special ed kids
Developing curriculum and staffing levels to handle increased inclusiveness with limited resources is the challenge, Meduna said. Training older teachers who did not have college instruction in handling special-ed students is a priority of Meduna and her staff. Meanwhile, younger teachers have come into the classroom having been taught about the disabilities seen among their inclusive students.
Kluth cited studies that showed great advances in educational performance for students with disabilities is the result of inclusive education.
Algebra, French are within grasp
“I don’t think even diehards (back in the 1970s and 1980s) expected us to be here in 2012 talking about (special ed) kids learning algebra,” she said, while also giving an example of a disabled student becoming fluent in French after years of classroom training.
Laws prescribe personalized services for disabled students in general-education classes, such as special seating, shorter assignments, a different pace of instruction if needed and teaching of social skills.
These supplements are necessary to prevent special-ed students from simply being put into classrooms and being allowed to fend for themselves when, with assistance, they can accomplish significant learning to help them become independent adults.
Special ed kids can achieve
Kluth cited studies showing students with Down syndrome were able to accomplish the same academic results as their classmates, albeit at a slower pace, with individual teaching assistance.
Reminding all in attendance of the challenge of increasing inclusiveness in this economically-battered environment was Kevin Wallin, manager of the Chandler-Newberger Community Center in Evanston. He is the parent of a fifth-grade student with a disability. With budget cuts, teachers must handle bigger classrooms and are thus more stressed, with less attention to the special-ed student.
“When you know the staff and teachers love your kid, that’s half the battle,” Wallin said.