Not Separate, but Equal

March 01, 2004 3 min read
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Five years ago, Steven Gould, then principal of the 400-student James Russell Lowell Elementary School in Watertown, Massachusetts, set out to mainstream every one of his special education students. The idea was to foster an environment in which all children—regardless of their strengths or weaknesses—study at their own pace and take responsibility for their work and behavior. Now, Patti Sclafani-Hinkley, a special ed teacher in this Boston suburb, can gesture around a colorful classroom packed with teaching materials but devoid of children and say, “I don’t call this the resource room anymore. I call it my office.”

What Teachers Think

85% feel that their special ed students make significant academic progress over the course of the year.

26% of teachers who teach special ed students say that “all” or “most” are able to meet their states’ content standards. By contrast, 72 percent of those who teach general education students say that “all” or “most” of them are able to do the same.

58% “somewhat” or “strongly” disagree that many of the special ed students they teach are not capable of learning the required material.

84% believe that special ed students should not be expected to meet the same set of content standards as other students their age.

With the help of regular classroom instructors, special ed “co-teachers,” aides, and classmates, students with disabilities receive instruction while sitting next to their peers instead of heading down the hall to what was formerly the resource room. Achievement-test scores have risen, and students at Lowell are more engaged and self-directed in their learning and feel a greater responsibility for their studies, according to a report commissioned by the U.S. Education Department’s special education office. “For students with disabilities, the stigma has all but disappeared,” the report notes.

While Sclafani-Hinkley’s classroom is now studentless, Mary Ford’s is bustling with 26 children, five of whom have IEPs. Right now, she’s talking about the letters they will be writing to their parents as part of the afternoon’s language arts lesson. As if on cue, special ed teacher Peggy McDonald enters the classroom, positions herself at a table, and starts helping the kids put their thoughts on paper. “When you are finished, show your work to me or Mrs. McDonald,” Ford says.

Neither teacher spends all her time helping only special ed students. While Ford is checking work at one end of the room, McDonald is at the other, looking over a pupil’s shoulder. “I like how focused you are!” she exclaims. “You’re crankin’!”

Gould, who is now an administrator in the Watertown district office, believes that putting students with disabilities in regular classrooms is a civil rights issue. “‘Separate but equal’ is not equal,” he says. Initially, teachers resisted the idea of mainstreaming youngsters with an enormous range of needs, abilities, and behavioral issues, says Lowell’s acting principal, Marilyn Hollisian. But once it became clear that teachers had the authority to mold many of the special ed practices to their styles, “they felt much better about it,” she adds.

To help teachers tailor tests and instruction for each child, provide extra help as needed, and handle behavior problems, administrators hired an inclusion specialist and a behavioral specialist, who joined the existing special ed teachers, speech pathologist, occupational therapist, and physical therapist.

“Before, it was just you and your four walls, and you did the best you could,” says Kathy Fucci, a 25-year teaching veteran. Now teachers have “the feeling that you are not alone,” she says.

The work has paid off for Kyle Martin, a 5th grader with severe attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, a nonverbal learning disorder, and sensory difficulties. When Kyle started kindergarten, his mother, Michelle Martin, heard parents and even staff members complain about “that loud kid with the issues.” Now Martin says she tells parents, “My child’s IEP is benefiting your child” because the extra help Kyle receives spills over to the rest of the class. They also have learned that “not everyone is alike, and some people have disabilities.”

“And you work with them,” Martin adds. “You don’t put them in a separate room.”

—Michelle Galley


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