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Including children with disabilities at school: good for kids, or good for budgets?

Published: Sunday, Feb. 24 2013 3:25 p.m. MST

During her elementary school years, Maura was schooled in a special education classroom within a regular school. There, she had brief, but daily, contact with typical kids.

"Maura used to go to her mainstream classes, and other children would read to her — and she thoroughly enjoyed that," said Lloyd.

Because of the profound nature of her disabilities, Maura attended elementary school on a shortened schedule, and wouldn't have benefited much from trying to learn multiplication and division, Lloyd said.

"That would be an awkward sort of inclusion. But the reading, assemblies, a music class — she could participate in that."

Lloyd was impressed by the kindness and compassion of most of the children, and said Maura found it very stimulating to be with them. But, when it was time for junior high school, Maura's growing needs trumped her mother's wishes for her to be like — or at least with — ordinary kids in an ordinary junior high school.

Because they live in a populous urban area in Utah, the Lloyds had the option of sending Maura to a specialized school. With some hesitation, they chose to place her at Canyons School District's Jordan Valley School, a school for children with profound disabilities.

There, she receives physical therapy, swims in a pool that eases her taut muscles, and practices using her walker — "a big, fancy contraption," in her mother's words — in the school's wide, quiet hallways. That is Maura's schoolwork. It's hard work, fitted to her particular needs. She is among other students facing challenges as daunting as her own, and she is thriving, her mother said.

Serving all kids

The situation that best fit Maura's needs involved removing her from the busy, complicated environment of typical public school classrooms. At times, however, the drive to do what is best for students with disabilities affects public school experiences for other students. Increased mainstreaming of children with severe disorders has left teachers in some areas overwhelmed by the need to deal with children who scream endlessly, or are physically combative, unresponsive or in need of constant care. Meanwhile, pressure on teachers to prepare all of their students for success on standardized tests continues unabated.

And, needs of special education students are only one of many challenges teacher face. Some of today's classrooms contain a veritable case load of students with minimal English skills, profound autism, severe behavioral problems or learning problems traceable to poverty — along with students who face none of those challenges. Teaching veteran Lenore Waggoner, whose long teaching career included 25 years in Virginia's Fairfax County School District, said that in such cases, large class sizes are the final straw that defeats teachers, no matter how excellent their skills.

"Class size makes a difference," Waggoner said. "You wouldn't put 30 kids in an environment like that. It's not only overwhelming to the teacher, but to the students themselves."

A statement by the National Autism Center said that while many children have benefited from it, "inclusion has not fully met its promise."

"Public schools are sometimes unable to provide the specialized education required for children with autism, especially those with the most severe language and behavior disorders," the statement said. "It is unrealistic to expect that regular education teachers will always have the specific training required for this population."

Even in areas where the inclusion philosophy is deeply ingrained, it isn't always practical.

"Although schools may have a mandate to include all children, it is not uncommon that some eventually re-create special classrooms because the children did not receive the appropriate education or their behavior problems could not be addressed within the regular classroom," according to the National Autism Center.

Child by child

If there is one point on which there is agreement regarding inclusion, it is that each special education student has unique requirements that require individualized solutions. Federal special education law allows for that, and provides a path forward, Musgrove said.

"The decisions are to be made on a child-by-child basis. We believe that needs can be met, for the most part, in general education classrooms. There are reasons for children to be removed for a specific period of time because of special challenges, but not necessarily all day," she said.

"I recognize that teachers are under a great deal of pressure, because we expect a lot of them," Musgrove continued. "There must be a framework in place to ensure teachers get the support they need, and that must be tailored to the needs of the students. We expect a lot of teachers, and all in all, they are doing a magnificent job."

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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