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Chicago Flap Shows Limits of 'Inclusion,' Critics Say

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For Martha Luna, Chicago's Jacqueline Vaughn Occupational High School was a blessing.

Her 15-year-old son, Tony, had spent most of his school career in classrooms with other students with disabilities, separated from nondisabled children.

When it came time to pick a high school, Ms. Luna wanted him to attend Vaughn. The school offers a vocational focus for its 130 students, nearly all of whom have mild or moderate retardation.

"I know Tony won't go to college so I don't expect that, just for him to learn everyday living and work skills," Ms. Luna said.

But the Chicago school district disagrees. Such a separate facility should be considered only when students have more severe disabilities, officials say.

School officials have proposed substantial changes in the program at Vaughn, calling for more integration with nondisabled students and a wider curriculum. Maintaining the school as it is, they argue, violates federal regulations that call for students to be educated in the "least-restrictive environment."

Growing Pains

Many parents of Vaughn students are outraged. They fear their children's options are being sacrificed for what they call "political correctness." In recent weeks, Ms. Luna and other parents have waged a bitter fight with city and state school officials over the fate of the Vaughn school.

Their battle mirrors the growing pains in the nationwide movement toward "full inclusion" of children with disabilities into regular classrooms in their neighborhood schools.

Vaughn offers a core curriculum of basic subjects, but with an occupational focus, such as learning to count change from a cash register, said Principal Jay F. Mulberry.

Some students receive credit for working at jobs inside and--in their junior and senior years--outside the school during the school day.

Students hold low-level jobs in places such as McDonald's, an airline-food-service company, and a glass-installation business, the principal said.

Vaughn Occupational High School, which opened 20 years ago, today is housed in a refurbished office building on the city's North Side.

Though popular with parents and students, the school ran afoul of the inclusion movement in 1992, when the Illinois state board of education received a complaint that Vaughn students were spending virtually no time with their nondisabled peers.

That complaint triggered a 1993 corrective-action plan that called for the school to integrate its students with their nondisabled peers from nearby high schools in extracurricular or other activities. The plan also required the school to open its food-service program to nondisabled students.

In addition, the corrective plan required the district to review the federally required individualized education plans of each student wishing to attend Vaughn to determine whether a segregated school setting was appropriate.

Last month, the state board notified Chicago officials that Vaughn had violated the terms of the agreement by failing to sufficiently integrate its students. The board threatened to pull all the city's state and federal education funds unless the district moved toward compliance.

Meanwhile, many parents whose children were preparing to attend Vaughn as freshmen received letters from the district saying the students would instead attend their neighborhood schools. That prompted some 20 parents to protest outside Vaughn on Sept. 7, carrying signs that said, "The board's inclusion is exclusion."

Some parents, such as Ms. Luna, kept their children home from school. To entice them back, school officials let most of the 45 freshmen start at Vaughn. But administrators stipulated that eventually the education plans of students be reviewed to determine which integrated activities they should join.

'We Must Raise Expectations'

Chicago officials are negotiating a transition plan that, if approved by the state, would require Vaughn to beef up its academic offerings and allow nondisabled students to attend the school next fall.

Some parents fear the changes mean the end of what they considered a successful program.

"It was our magnet school for Tony: the only one left in the city with this program," Ms. Luna said.

Vaughn is an aberration, said Charlene A. Green, Chicago's associate superintendent for special education and pupil-support services. Most of the city's separate facilities are for students with more severe disabilities.

That pattern holds true across the country, said Paul Marchand, the director of government affairs for The Arc, an advocacy group for mentally retarded individuals that has lobbied for greater inclusion.

For students with mild or moderate retardation, he said, "there's not much debate over segregated facilities anymore: that was solved in most places years ago."

Ms. Green said she understands the parents' concerns. But, she added, "we must raise our expectations for these kids. They must have all kinds of options, not just occupational--and we have to follow the law."

Adopted in 1977, the regulations of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act call for students to be educated in the least-restrictive environment possible.

Advocates say more inclusive school environments offer students realistic preparation for adult life and that segregation stigmatizes and isolates students with disabilities.

Critics, however, say the focus on inclusion can translate into fewer services and less attention for special-education students.

James M. Kauffman, a special-education professor at the University of Virginia, takes a cautionary approach toward inclusion.

"Getting a concentrated, focused program outside of a special school is tough," he said. "Parents are rightfully concerned and suspicious about the district's ability to do that."

Some Vaughn parents doubt the benefits to their children of being with nondisabled peers.

"My kid doesn't want to be with nondisabled kids," said Mary Andrews, whose son is a junior. "He finally has a place where he's comfortable and has friends."

A Troubled Past

The problems at the Vaughn school are not the first for special-education programs in the city, or the state, and some observers say that poor track record has influenced the tough new stance toward Vaughn's program.

Illinois ranks 46th among states in the degree to which disabled students are integrated into regular classes or served in part-time resource rooms, according to federal data.

In February, the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights threatened to cut off the city's federal funds after finding pervasive problems in private schools enrolling disabled students. (See Education Week, Feb. 16, 1994.)

Since 1992, Chicago has been battling a federal class action filed by a group of parents and advocates on behalf of the district's roughly 47,000 disabled students. They claim state and local school officials are violating federal special-education laws by educating disabled students in separate facilities. (See Education Week, June 3, 1992.)

"That certainly is in mind" as the board moves to change Vaughn, said Gail M. Lieberman, the state board's assistant superintendent of special education.

Yet, for some parents, the issue goes beyond that of inclusion with nondisabled students. Many parents say they fear for their children's safety in the city's larger high schools.

But, Ms. Green noted, that fear is shared by many parents.

"You can't shelter your kids from what's in the real world," she said, adding that if all parents wanted smaller, safer schools for their children "we'd have nowhere to put them."

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