One of our goals as public school educators is to work towards a more just and equal society. In my mind, such a society is one that includes, protects, and accommodates individuals with disabilities.
Reading The Wave’s May 18 editorial
“If It Isn’t Broken, Don’t Fix It,” I was startled by both the offensive generalization of students with special needs as “emotionally liable” and by the concept of placing blame for the “deterioration” of city schools on the inclusion of these students in least restrictive environments.
In the racially and socio-economically diverse Rockaway school in which I teach, our students with special needs are as varied and unique as their general education peers. We have children with speech and language impairments, learning disabilities, autism, other help impairments, and yes — some with emotional disabilities. We would be failing these students, and their general education classmates, to isolate any of them from the rest of the school population. Even those who learn in a small, self-contained classroom are mainstreamed for lunch and other activities. With the support and guidance of a well-trained and caring staff, these students have found success. They are not tyrannizing our hallways or terrorizing without supervision. Rather, they are a cherished piece of our school family.
In the past ten years, the graduation rate for students in small, isolated special education classrooms like the ones described in “If It
Isn’t Broken” has hovered around 7 percent. Special education is not intended to be a place to hold or hide challenging students. Instead, it was meant to be a method of delivering services to children with disabilities in ways which would allow them to reach their maximum potential. Doing this in an inclusion setting — the least restrictive environment — holds students to higher standards, gives them access to the general education curriculum, and exposes them to positive peer role models. When teachers are trained and supported (as should be the case), inclusion has benefits for all students.
This is not to say that we do not have our challenges educating these students. Sometimes there are disruptions to instruction or classroom activities. Many students in our school come to mind — including children who are part of the general education population — who engage in inappropriate, impulsive or disruptive behavior. But rather than seek a new placement or the removal of these students, we have learned that we must reflect and collaborate to provide them with interventions and support.
Maybe the writer of this editorial does “understand the dynamics of what actually happens in the city’s public schools,” as he claims, that neither Mayor Bloomberg nor his advisors seem to. Perhaps this writer has seen examples of inclusion gone wrong. Even so, it is difficult as an advocate for children to accept his conclusions about the impending doom of the city schools due to special education reform and the efforts to keep students in their least restrictive environments.
Rather than decry the city’s past failures to include and meet the needs of all students, I encourage the writer and other critics to look towards schools that have created successful models of inclusion — where students are educated in safe, supportive environments, held to universally high standards, and given the tools they need to feel and be successful. Rather than predict the flight of parents to other districts and to private schools, we must seek to replicate those successes. We must advocate for systemic change and fight for the realization of the true goal of public school — to provide all children with an equal education, and to work towards that better, more just, and more inclusive future.