Learning through inclusion

Education: Howard County ranks among the worst in the state in the integration of special-needs children in classrooms with their nondisabled peers.

February 02, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Howard County may be among the best in educating the general population, but data show it is failing children with disabilities because it does not include them in classes with nondisabled students more often, as federal law mandates and education standards require.

"Overall, our inclusion stats are really disappointing," said Anne Long, chairwoman of the county's Special Education Community Advisory Committee, "but that's not just Howard, that's Maryland."

The state is among the worst in the country for its rate of inclusion, but Howard is among the worst in the state.

It ranks 19th out of 24 Maryland districts in meeting the U.S. Department of Education's goal of having 80 percent of disabled students educated in classes with typically developing children for 80 percent of their school day, which research has shown is beneficial to both groups.

"We thought we were moving along, but our data doesn't really show that we are," said Diana Mitchell, the school system's special-education coordinator. "And it's hard to say exactly why that is."

Part of the problem, she said, is in finding funding and being able to properly train already overworked teachers. There is also the difficult hurdle of changing attitudes and long-held philosophies of school staff members and parents, but time is running out.

New requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act will require all students - disabled or otherwise - to be taught and tested on general education curriculum by highly qualified educators.

And the future of Cedar Lane, a county institution for children with special needs, is shaky, reinforcing the need for neighborhood schools that better serve disabled children. Cedar Lane is crowded, more than 20 years old, and some say seriously lacking the necessary resources to adequately serve its population.

The school system, which says it has absolutely no intention of dismantling Cedar Lane, wants to build a replacement. But that would cost millions, and the state refuses to chip in.

"Right now, the rebuilding of the Cedar Lane facility is at a standstill," Mitchell said. "The state has said that they're not going to give any approval for the building of any segregated, separate facilities for children with disabilities. Knowing that, we need to work through where are we going to go with that."

Mitchell said a task force is in the works, charged with finding ways to serve disabled students in the least restrictive environment, that is, in classes with able peers.

But even that is controversial.

Parents with children at separate facilities often believe their children are there for a reason, be it better care or better fit, and many are afraid of losing those opportunities.

Many parents, educators and researchers believe there is a need for separate institutions for some children. Others are on the opposite end of the spectrum, and there are several other opinions in between.

But inclusion, done correctly, can make all the difference, says Catriona Johnson, director of Public Policy initiatives at the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council.

Johnson's son, Asher Johnson-Dorman, is a fourth-grader with autism at Guilford Elementary School. Nearly all of his classroom time is spent with typically developing kids.

"Being in an inclusive setting, he's around neighborhood kids much more, and it gives him an opportunity for friendships to develop," Johnson said. But more than that, she said, it has allowed him to realize an academic potential she never thought possible, even grasping abstract math concepts.

Special educator Courtney Thomas, who coordinates Asher's schooling and necessary curricular modifications, said Asher benefits from learning to model his peers' behavior, but that his presence also helps the nondisabled pupils.

"He makes the other kids more humble," Thomas said, teaching them about tolerance and seeing people with disabilities as people first - and not just a labeled limitation.

It's important that integration happen when kids are young, Thomas added, because by the time they get to middle school, acceptance is largely based on the cosmetic.

Thirty years ago, Maryland was ahead of the pack, enacting a state law in 1974 - a year earlier than the federal mandate - that required education for children with disabilities.

The solution, though - based on then-current research - was thought to be separate facilities. So, many were built, splitting the population, and that segregation lingers, even though the trend today is toward inclusion.

"It really is a civil rights issue," said Jessica Pearsall, who has a son with Down syndrome in first grade at Ilchester Elementary and a 4-year-old with autism. "So many of the arguments against including kids with disabilities are the exact same arguments used as reasons to segregate African-Americans," such as concern for their safety or to spare them ridicule.

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