When a couple of girls down the street ask to play with Melissa Shelley, something positive is happening.
At least that's the way her mother, Becky Shelley, sees it. Nine-year-old Melissa is severely handicapped."She is a girl who can't talk normally," Shelley said. "That's real positive for others to want to play with her. It's a role model for her."
Melissa is one of seven students enrolled in Provo School District's integration program at Sunset View Elementary School. The program, only weeks old, is part of the district's efforts to move handicapped children into the regular school program.
Kathy Hughes, district special education curriculum director, said, "We are enabling people with handicaps and the regular population to function and interact together normally and appropriately.
"We all belong together. We all are people that need the same opportunities for growth."
Provo School District became involved in the integration program through two proj-ects at the University of Utah - the Utah Community Based Transition program and the Utah Elementary Integration program.
Three years ago the district began the community-based transition program for handicapped high school students. Because of its success, the district initiated the elementary integration program at Sunset View, one of its year-round schools. If the program is a success, the district will copy the model in other schools.
Handicapped students involved in the programs learn academic skills in a separate classroom with a special education instructor, but everything else is done with the regular class. Each student has a regular homeroom and goes to physical education, art, recess, lunch, morning activities and assemblies with that class.
"The fun thing about it is you can walk in the classroom and they blend in so well it is difficult to pick them out - not only in looks, but in their behavior too," said Judy Wolfgramm, Sunset View's special education teacher.
Shelley said her daughter, who was born with a speech impairment and other developmental delays, already shows improvement in her speech. "She seems to be saying more and more. Now she wants to go outside and play. Before she stayed in by me."
Patti Harrington, principal at Sunset View, said: "The main reason they are here is to have appropriate peer modeling. They see that and then mimic it. It is really a joy to see how they interact."
The purpose of the integration program is to help handicapped people adjust to living in the non-handicapped world, Hughes said. A great deal of time is spent teaching them living skills, such as how to use money and buy food.
Harrington said the non-handicapped students are learning just as much from the handicapped students. "The regular kids learn that the handicapped kids deserve to be treated with respect and they learn to love and accept them. I've never heard any of our children say anything rude."
Hughes said by working and playing with handicapped students the non-handicapped students find out that there are more similarities than differences between the two. "They realize they have the same problems and frustrations."
Alpine and Nebo School Districts are also involved in similar programs.
This year the Nebo School District will participate in the community based transition program at Spanish Fork High School and hopes to be a part of the elementary integration program next year. Meanwhile, the district has a modified integration program of its own. Five- to 8-year-olds are being moved into the regular schools.
The Alpine School District is also working on a project to move handicapped classes into the regular school.
Beginning this year, Alpine will implement a mainstreaming program in conjunction with the State Office of Education and Utah State University. Non-handicapped students will interact with handicapped students as "buddies."
Past programs for severely handicapped students include enrollment in a self-contained classroom in various schools throughout the districts, or at Provo School District's Oakridge School or Alpine's Peterson School. Both Oakridge and Peterson are schools set aside to educate the handicapped.
But Wolfgramm said the integration program has more advantages than any other program. "We used to mainstream, where you just drop handicapped students in the regular classroom, but they would be lost and end up in the back of the room sitting. The teacher couldn't spend enough time with them."
Self-contained classrooms put handicapped students in the regular schools, but there was no interaction with non-handicapped students because they did everything with their class.
"The main idea of integration is for socialization and communication," Wolfgramm said. "Academics are taught on a one-to-one basis and we are finding that they get more help than they would in a self-contained classroom."
Camack said mainstreaming and integrating handicapped students isn't necessarily the best answer. "It is helpful for some, but not appropriate for all handicapped kids. We still need places like Oakridge for them to get instruction. Some do well, some don't."
Whatever the case may be, handicapped students have a choice.
Harrington said at first some parents have concerns that their child is in an unprotected environment in the regular school, but they have had nothing but support since the program started.
Becky Shelley is one parent who has accepted the program. "Melissa seems happier - she comes home from school every day a little bubblier. We are absolutely thrilled about it."