IM this article to a friend!

November 14, 2002

Special ed joins mainstream

From: Detroit News, MI
Nov. 14, 2002

California program has its share of pro and con

By Solomon Moore / Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO -- Moji Duenas cannot read and may never learn to. Nor can the 18-year-old walk, speak or feed herself. She is incontinent. Convulsions sometimes rattle her body.

Yet Moji is a high school student in the San Francisco Unified School District, taking most of her classes with teens en route to college. She is part of San Francisco's ambitious -- and sometimes painful -- effort to integrate most disabled students into regular classrooms.
San Francisco began its program eight years ago, making it one of the first urban school systems in the nation to do so. The results have profoundly affected the district.
Many parents and school officials say San Francisco's changes, which are implemented in half the public schools there, give disabled children a chance to thrive. They have fewer limits placed upon them and have nondisabled children as behavior models. Even some parents of regular students say that their children are learning valuable lessons in compassion and tolerance.
At the same time, the transition has not been smooth. Some teachers and administrators resent having to work with disabled students. Special education teachers are scarce. A number of handicapped youngsters find it difficult to fit into regular classes -- sometimes they are neglected by teachers, or picked on by schoolmates. And a growing segment of educators say that the effort, known as "inclusion," is proving to be more expensive than having separate classrooms for the handicapped.
Principal Andrew W. Ishibashi of George Washington High School, which Moji attended, respects the district's policy to meet parents' wishes on inclusion where possible. But he doesn't think it's realistic in the case of severely disabled students like Moji.
"She's mentally untrainable," he said.
Unhappy with that assessment, Moji's mother, Juno Duenas, recently moved Moji to another public high school in San Francisco, Wallenberg Traditional High. She said her daughter's situation has improved.
The special education teacher there holds monthly strategy meetings with Duenas and Moji's other teachers. When other children in art class are drawing faces, an assistant will help Moji draw a circle and then help her place paper eyes, noses and lips.

Teachers fight for time
A more typical student is Tyronne Keith, 16, who has cerebral palsy. A devoted wrestling fan, Tyronne often sports a T-shirt with a picture of his favorite rumbler, Goldberg, and is greeted warmly throughout the school. Despite a speech impediment, Tyronne has a quick wit. When his special education aide was late one day, Tyronne jokingly told him: "I'm firing you."
Tyronne was in segregated programs in lower grades and still spends most of his day in a special class because his mother, Beatrice Keith, said he receives more attention there. He is mainstreamed for some other classes such as gym and drama.
"With so many kids in the classroom, the (general education) teacher can't take time out for two or three handicapped kids," Keith said.
However, Joyce Chisholm, the now retired founder of San Francisco Unified's inclusion program, predicts that more parents will place their children in regular classrooms as much as possible. She calls inclusion an "educational belief system."
Kristen Lombardo cuts a nimble figure at Hoover Middle School, striding up stairs and down hallways to spend time with a dozen disabled children in nearly as many classes. It's hard to juggle so many children, Lombardo said, but dealing diplomatically with territorial teachers can be even harder.
One recent morning at the Sunset District campus, Lombardo walked into an eighth-grade math class in which an autistic student and another student with a learning disability were mixed in with nondisabled children. She found them struggling with math exercises, and a chair was left empty next to each of them, evidently meant for Lombardo. She was furious; to Lombardo it sent the message "that special education children are my problem."
Mike Lee, the no-nonsense teacher of the math class, gave Lombardo a gruff greeting.
"How long will you be here?" he demanded. Lee was teaching fractions, a hard subject that required his students to concentrate.
Lombardo bristled: "A few minutes -- you want my watch?"
Lee supports inclusion in theory, he explained later, but he finds it obtrusive in practice.
"My classroom is like a ship, and I'm the captain," he said. "I've got to time my class down to the second, and you're never sure when the inclusion teacher is coming in. Sometimes, I might be giving a test, and the (special education) student is yelling and screaming."
Collaboration between teachers fell by the wayside that day -- Lombardo spent all of her time explaining the lesson to the two special education students while Lee worked with the rest of the class.

Nondisabled set example
The inclusion model is an outgrowth of the 1975 Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which mandates that disabled children receive "free, appropriate public education." The same law led most school districts in the 1980s to create "special day classes" for handicapped students. Increasingly, it is being interpreted to mean that separate classes should be the last resort, and inclusion the first.
Patty Wong pulled her 7-year-old autistic son, Aaron, out of a segregated special education class because "his behavior was going negative," she said. Now he is in a regular second-grade class at West Portal Elementary School in southwest San Francisco and doing better.
"Most autistic kids are visual learners, and they will do what they see," Wong said. "I want him to see good models all the time."
Like many autistic children, Aaron can be more physical than verbal. So, special education teacher Tiffany Kendall recently read to Aaron's class a book called "Tobin Learns to Make Friends," which is about a train that shoves his way past other characters. Kendall linked the story to Aaron, saying he "is a little different, but what helps Aaron so much is that he has really good friends in this classroom."
A boy named Jonathan raised his hand and said he politely reminds Aaron about school rules when the autistic boy pushes or cuts in lines. Kendall applauded Jonathan and advised him: "And when Aaron does not shove you, you can tell him, 'Thank you Aaron for not pushing me.' "

Separate may be best
But Terri Bookwalter, an English teacher at Lowell High School on San Francisco's west side, said the district places too much emphasis on inclusion.
"I think it's very stressful for special ed students," she said. "The normal day can be highly distracting" for children with special needs.
Bookwalter speaks as a general education teacher who has taught disabled students in regular classes -- and as a parent of a son with Charge syndrome, a combination of birth defects that often includes heart problems, hearing loss and stunted growth.
"I had to threaten to take the district to court" to get her son out of regular classes and into a separate special education class, Bookwalter said. "And I'm a teacher."
There her son stayed until he graduated and went off to college.
Special education costs account for about 13 percent of San Francisco Unified's budget. Of that, the federal government provides less than one dollar in 10. Many special education experts think the federal share should be four times as high.
San Francisco Unified has done a cost analysis of inclusion vs. segregation.
"On a gut level, we know the cost of special education has gone up with inclusion," said Victor Milhoan, a San Francisco Unified budget official.
A study this year by Arun Ramanathan, a Harvard University researcher, said San Francisco relies too heavily on paraprofessionals, aides who push children's wheelchairs, tutor them and help them in bathrooms. He said that the district should spread those aides among several children at once -- especially when the youngsters have relatively mild disabilities.
Ramanathan estimated that the district has increased spending on special aides from $200,000 a year in 1994, the year integration began, to about $5 million a year. That is equal to about 5 percent of the district's total $88 million special education budget.

Copyright 2002 The Detroit News.