Va. Hamlet at Forefront of ‘Full Inclusion’ Movement for Disabled

By Debra Viadero — November 18, 1992 14 min read

SHAWSVILLE, VA.--When Toni Mills started school three years ago, she rode a bus more than an hour each day to a special-education class in a nearby town. The classroom was a quiet setting where some children, like Toni, were mentally retarded, and others could not walk or talk, Toni’s mother recalled recently. By the time Toni got home after another long bus ride in the evening, it was almost time for bed.

“I remember I told her teacher, ‘Well, she can’t add,’ and her teacher said, ‘She’ll probably never be able to add,’ '' Toni’s mother, Teresa Mills, said. “But she wasn’t doing anything.’'

Today, at age 9, Toni attends the same elementary school as her nondisabled neighbors and cousins. Her classroom is a bustling place with bright-colored walls and pictures and noisy 3rd graders. There are children here who are willing to coax her down from the monkey bars when she balks or to help her with a classroom assignment.

She is reading at a 1st-grade level, despite psychological tests suggesting she should not be doing so well. If she still cannot add, her mother noted, she at least “knows her numbers.’'

“She’s learning so much more than I ever anticipated,’' Ms. Mills added.

What has made the difference for Toni, Ms. Mills and educators here at Shawsville Elementary School said, has been the opportunity to go to school with “regular kids.’' Toni is here because school officials in this rural Virginia county three years ago launched an ambitious effort to open up regular classrooms across the district to all students with disabilities. Now, nine of the district’s 10 elementary schools, like Shawsville, are fully integrated and efforts are under way to do the same in the middle and high schools.

The campaign has put this tiny hamlet at the center of a national movement toward “full inclusion’’ of disabled students in regular classrooms. Fueled by court decisions, parental demands, new research, and the success of other educators, more schools are putting disabled children back into regular classrooms.

Some experts in the field have expressed concern that the movement could dilute special-education services and jeopardize legal protections. But others hail it as a major step forward for disabled children.

“Clearly, there’s a message here to students,’' said Douglas Biklen, a Syracuse University special-education professor and vocal full-inclusion advocate. “It says, ‘I’m valued. I belong here. I have a right to be here.’ ''

Gaining Ground

Federal special-education law states that, to the “maximum extent appropriate,’' children with disabilities should be educated with nondisabled peers.

But common practice, evolving from an era when people with disabilities were routinely shut away in institutions, has been to teach many such children in separate classrooms, or to pull them out of their regular classrooms for special help in nearby resource rooms. Students are typically “mainstreamed’’ for only a few subjects a day, such as art or physical education.

According to a recent analysis by The ARC, a national advocacy group, only 6.7 percent of students with mental retardation spend the better part of their school days in regular classrooms.

In contrast, the full-inclusion movement puts the emphasis on the regular classroom. Students in fully integrated schools are not pulled out for special help elsewhere. The assistance they need comes to them in the regular classroom.

For the special-education field, the momentum the movement is now gaining marks a sea change in opinions on the issue.

Just six years ago, for example, Madeleine C. Will, then the U.S. Education Department’s assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, proposed a “regular-education initiative’’ urging schools to teach all mildly disabled students in regular classrooms.

The proposal created a bitter controversy in the field. Some special educators said their students needed more intensive help, and parents and advocates worried their children would lose hard-won rights to special-education services.

While some of those feelings still exist in the field, the issue assumed a lower profile after Ms. Will left office. Her successor, Robert R. Davila, himself a product of special schools for the deaf, presented a more moderate stance on the issue. He said regular-classroom placement should be an option for all students along with other kinds of placements, such as resource rooms and special classes and schools.

The department, however, has continued to pump funds into research and demonstration projects for full inclusion across the country, awarding a total of $63 million in grants over the past three years. States and school districts, moreover, have begun experimenting on their own with the idea.

Growing Parental Demands

At the same time, a new federal law has prodded more states to provide special-education services for disabled preschoolers, noted Frank Laski, a lawyer who often handles special-education cases for the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia. Many of those programs are housed in regular preschools.

“More and more of these kids are coming up with pretty good preschool experiences,’' he said. “When they get to school age, their parents no longer automatically accept the placement the school district recommends.’'

Parental demands led to a spate of successful lawsuits around the country in recent years. The best known of those cases involved Rachel Hollan, a moderately mentally retarded girl whose parents sued the Sacramento, Calif., school system to get their daughter a place in a regular classroom. Her parents initiated the lawsuit after observing that their daughter seemed to blossom in a summer day camp with nondisabled children but did poorly in a special-education class.

Although the school district is appealing the case, similar lawsuits are also succeeding this year in New Jersey and Michigan. (See Education Week, Sept. 30, 1992.)

In the New Jersey case, which involved a young boy with severe disabilities, the federal judge who decided the case endorsed full inclusion in ringing tones.

“Inclusion is a right, not a special privilege for the select few,’' he wrote.

That decision is also on appeal.

“I’m really surprised at how well full-inclusion cases are doing in the courts now,’' said Diane Lipton, the lawyer for Rachel and her parents. “I think there’s no stopping it.’'

A Civil-Rights Issue

Parents who are pressing school systems for inclusion said their efforts are born of common sense.

“If a child has a speech difficulty, how can putting him in a class with six other kids with speech difficulties help him?’' asked Margaret Dignoti, the executive director of The ARC of Connecticut.

Ms. Dignoti’s organization and parents and other advocacy groups have filed a class action aimed at forcing Connecticut schools to serve more children with mental retardation in regular classrooms.

Full inclusion also became a potential civil-rights issue with the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which bans all forms of discrimination against the disabled. Although none of the cases have cited the law, advocates say it has raised the national consciousness about the rights of disabled people.

“It makes it hard to defend keeping a kid apart from nondisabled kids when he’s going to be integrated as an adult,’' Mr. Laski said.

Martha Snell, a University of Virginia education professor who is studying inclusive classrooms, said education reform also has played a role in the movement’s new prominence.

“Everything that’s said in school reform and restructuring is very compatible with this aspect of reform,’' she said. “And schools that are implementing mission statements saying all kids can learn are finding out that a lot of kids who don’t have disabilities can benefit from this.’'

Shawsville’s Story

In Shawsville, however, the impetus to bring students like Toni back home to their neighborhood schools came from within the district itself. Prompted by parents and the need to plan for the future of special education, the district formed a committee to study the issue.

The task force recommended a five-year plan to phase in fully integrated schools districtwide. Special-education administrators spent the first year providing workshops on the subject for all teachers and administrators and integrating preschool programs.

“Then, we sat back and waited for volunteers,’' said Johnna Elliot, a special-education consultant who works with district schools moving toward integration.

Dale Margheim, the principal of Shawsville Elementary, was among the first to volunteer. As a former special-education teacher, Mr. Margheim said, “I taught kids in self-contained classrooms and I thought we were being successful, and I was happy and they were happy.’'

“But that lasted about as long as it took them to get out the doorway,’' he said. “I was never happy with that.’'

Mr. Margheim visited some of the special schools attended by children such as Toni and observed the students who lived within his school’s attendance area.

“I came back and told the teachers, ‘I have some youngsters I’d like to bring back here and, by the way, I’d like to do away with self-contained classrooms,’ '' he said.

State Waivers Needed

Now, more than 30 of the school’s 300 students are children who would otherwise have been in separate schools or classes.

Some have significant impairments. Jason Dudley, for example, who is legally blind and can utter only a few words, is in a regular 1st-grade class with 16 other students.

And, in the 3rd-grade classroom next door to Toni’s, Billy Moss is able to remain in a regular class only with the help of a full-time aide. Labeled developmentally disabled, he has trouble concentrating, sitting still, and forming social relationships. The aide must continually keep him on task and give him 15-minute breaks every hour to walk around and release some of his excess energy.

The school obtained waivers from state regulations to allow special-education teachers to work with wider ranges of disabled pupils and with nondisabled pupils who were having trouble in class. It closed down its special-education classrooms, converting them to computer labs and storage space.

Special-education teachers and aides were dispersed among classrooms according to the needs of the disabled students in those rooms. The teachers either team-teach classes, rotate teaching assignments, or work individually with children or small groups of students.

“Before, we used to sit in eligibility meetings and hope and pray a kid would come out with some kind of label so you could get help for him,’' said Sandra Cox, a special-education teacher. “Now I can help him anyway.’'

The school also began working with Ms. Elliott, who coaches regular-education teachers, observes the children, and suggests strategies for helping disabled pupils succeed in their regular classrooms. She also meets weekly with the teachers of significantly impaired students to review the past week’s lessons and plan for the coming week.

“I have to make sure we’re meeting their developmental-skill needs in the course of a day,’' she said. “If they’re reading a novel, we have to figure out how to teach skills within the context of that unit.’'

Mixed Initial Reception

Shawsville’s parents gave a mixed reception to the idea at first.

Billy’s mother, Rosa Bowles, said she was enthusiastic because she remembered how it felt to be singled out as “different’’ as a special-education student.

Other parents, however, only reluctantly went along, voicing concern their children would be teased by classmates.

But those fears were never realized, the parents said. Ms. Elliott visited each classroom to talk about the special needs of the disabled classmates and the importance of forming a “circle of friends’’ to help the less able children.

Now, parents and educators said, nondisabled children are enthusiastic about helping their disabled classmates.

Rebecca Brown, whose severely disabled granddaughter, Kathryn, attended the school for two years, recalled: “There’d be children waiting to hang up her coat for her, and they’d hang around and unpack her lunch for her.’'

“I’ve learned that she’s not much different than anybody else,’' said Anne Ryan, one of Toni’s nondisabled classmates.

Parents of nondisabled students, on the other hand, said they worried at first whether the new arrangement would put too much of a burden on teachers.

“I felt like our school was already overcrowded and, if they were going to be including all the special-education kids, that would make the classes that much larger,’' said Ellen Ryan, who was the president of the P.T.A. at the time.

Ms. Ryan’s concerns were allayed, however, because the new arrangement reduced the ratio of educators to children in the classroom.

In Toni’s class, for example, a special-education teacher was added, as well as a full-time aide who spends much of her day working with Toni.

When the rest of the class takes a 15-word spelling test, Toni will practice printing five of those words. When the class writes in journals, Toni makes sentences by working with an aide and choosing words written on index cards. When the class listens to a novel and then must predict what happens next, Toni might be asked who the main character was.

‘Where These Kids Belong’

“If it looks different from what everyone else is getting, she won’t do it,’' said Kerri Tahane, the teacher’s aide.

Educators at Shawsville have found, in fact, that the motivation disabled students get from working alongside their nondisabled peers has been a powerful learning tool.

“Before, we spent a lot of time developing motivation, and we don’t have to do that anymore,’' Ms. Elliott said. “We spent a lot of time teaching kids to take the top off the toothpaste and brush their teeth, when all we had to do was shove a grooming bag in their hand, send them off to the bathroom with another student, and say, ‘Come back in 10 minutes and you’d better look good.’ ‘

In the end, educators at the school said, the new arrangement has benefited all students.

“I think this is where these kids belong,’' said Shelley Aistrup, who teaches Jason Dudley’s 1st-grade class.

‘Disappeared’ in the Class

Outside of Montgomery County, however, fully inclusive classrooms have not worked well for everyone.

In another Virginia town, Katherine Letcher Lyle removed her mentally retarded teenage daughter from a local high school because she was floundering in regular classes.

“Everybody said, ‘Oh, she’s so cute and we love her’ and she never learned a damn thing all year,’' Ms. Lyle said.

Her daughter stopped receiving homework assignments after the second week of school, she added, and her efforts to get more attention for her child failed.

“It was almost as if she had disappeared,’' Ms. Lyle said.

The key to making inclusive programs work, special educators said, is providing adequate support.

“I think we would be violating the spirit of the law by placing children in inclusive classrooms without plans or support,’' said Mr. Davila of the Education Department.

Mr. Davila and other special educators have expressed concerns that some districts might see full inclusion as a way to save money.

In practice, however, properly managed inclusive programs should cost the same or slightly more than traditional programs, experts said. Shawsville’s special-education programs, for example, have been funded at a constant level for two years. The district paid for additional training by redirecting all of its training resources and grants to the full-inclusion effort.

“If you think about trying to provide the same frequency, intensity, and duration of services dispersed among all classes equally, as opposed to special classes, centers, and schools, it’s got to cost more,’' said James Kauffman, a professor of special education at the University of Virginia. “You might save some on transportation costs.’'

Individual Differences

Mr. Kauffman, who is critical of the full-inclusion movement, said he differs with advocates who would mandate that every child be in a regular classroom.

“I think the thing the extreme advocates tend to lose sight of is individual differences,’' he said.

Many people who are deaf, for example, contend they are more isolated in regular classrooms because they cannot communicate with peers or teachers who do not know sign language. Mr. Kauffman also said some emotionally disturbed students may exhibit behaviors that are too trying for classroom teachers.

There is wide agreement, however, that a growing number of schools will serve more disabled students in regular classrooms in the future.

President-elect Bill Clinton, in a letter mailed to disability-rights leaders nationwide this fall, promised a program of “full inclusion, not exclusion’’ for children and adults with disabilities.

Mr. Clinton pledged to insure that “children with disabilities receive a first-rate education, tailored to their needs but provided alongside classmates who do not have disabilities.’'

A statement issued last month by the National Association of State Boards of Education, moreover, strongly endorsed full inclusion. (See Education Week, Nov. 4, 1992.)

“All students legally, socially, and academically deserve to be schooled in neighborhood schools with their neighborhood peers,’' said Ms. Snell of the University of Virginia. “I think that’s the standard we should aim for.’'

A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 1992 edition of Education Week as Va. Hamlet at Forefront of ‘Full Inclusion’ Movement for Disabled