'The Best Of Both Worlds'

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MILWAUKEE--Principal Bonnie L. Vick says her new $15.3-million school has everything that a state-of-the-art school for severely handicapped youngsters should have.

The Frederick J. Gaenslen School, which opened here last month, has elevators large enough to hold a classroom full of students in wheelchairs. It comes equipped with handrails along its corridors, color-coded hallways, and cantilevered blackboards that allow children in wheelchairs to face the board when they write on it.

There are shallow pools for hydrotherapy, and the stoves in the home-economics classrooms have controls in front where they are easily reachable by wheelchair-bound students.

A preschool classroom contains a booth equipped with piped-in sound and colored lights that illuminate in sequence to stimulate the senses of some profoundly handicapped pupils. And, in the industrial-arts classrooms, all the equipment is placed at wheelchair-height.

"This building was meant to be a showcase for the district,'' says Ms. Vick, "and it will be.''

Even more important to Ms. Vick and other city school officials is the fact that the school will do something never before attempted here on such a large scale: Integrate severely handicapped children with their nonhandicapped peers.

Two Schools Into One

Gaenslen's students, who range from preschool through the 8th grade, are drawn from both a separate school for the handicapped and a regular elementary school located five city blocks away.

The school's development represents a major step forward in special education for Milwaukee public schools.

While most of the city's special-education students attend classes in their neighborhood schools, many of the most severely handicapped children have been taught in separate public-school buildings for years. Through the new school, 195 of these youngsters will have an opportunity to learn alongside children who are not handicapped, much as they would in an ordinary school.

Some of these profoundly handicapped children might not have been in public schools at all had they been born 10 years earlier. According to Ms. Vick, most are multiply handicapped. Some suffer from autism and spina bifida. Others cannot walk, or crawl, or talk.

But the story of Gaenslen's development is more than a tale of local progress in special education. It illustrates the difficulties all school officials face in trying to integrate handicapped students whose needs are the greatest. And it raises larger questions about how far educators should go--and how far they realistically can go--in attempting to serve the severely disabled in regular classrooms.

A 'Logical' Move

The Gaenslen school's roots date back to 1939, when Milwaukee school officials built the original Frederick J. Gaenslen School. Considered a model special-education facility at the time, the school drew mildly and severely handicapped students from thoughout the state.

But as more mildly and moderately handicapped children were "mainstreamed'' into neighborhood schools, Gaenslen's concentration of more severely disabled students grew. Five years ago, Milwaukee school officials decided the school was obsolete.

"What was state-of-the-art in 1938 did not come even close to complying with federal laws mandating access for the handicapped today,'' said Edward McMilin, the district's facilities director.

At the same time, it became apparent that the 85-year-old Fratney Elementary School nearby--a facility whose student body was primarily nonhandicapped--also needed to be replaced.

"We saw combining with Fratney as a chance to normalize our student body,'' Ms. Vick says. "It was so logical we were sure nobody would agree to it.''

The newly combined Gaenslen/Fratney school was built just 10 feet away from the original Gaenslen school. And district and school officials say few expenses were spared in its construction.

"At no time did anyone say 'we don't have enough money for that,''' recalls William Malloy, the district's assistant superintendent for exceptional education and supportive services. The estimated $15.3-million cost of the new building is about three times the cost of the average new elementary school in the district.

Opened on April 11, the new facility is designed so that its classrooms are arranged in clusters of three that open onto a common area.

One classroom within the cluster is used by handicapped students. Another is assigned solely to regular-education students, and the composition of the third class varies.

The rooms are divided by partitions that may be opened up for integrated activities.

"What we're working toward is a team approach where classes won't be thought of as being for either regular or exceptional students,'' Ms. Vick says. "Rather, we want to be able to say, 'This is a class where the children involved are able to do these things.'''

Eventually, Milwaukee school administrators hope to persuade state education officials to relax their categorical-funding regulations so that special-education teachers will be free to work with regular students who are at risk of failing, as well as with the handicapped.

For now, integration at the school primarily takes place during recess and lunch, when all the students sit together and play together.

City officials see the school as a way to offer their handicapped students "the best of both worlds.'' They say it provides the "normalizing'' environment of a neighborhood school without sacrificing the special services and facilities found in segregated facilities.

"You can integrate any child into the regular classroom if you have the right support services,'' says Mr. Malloy.

"Physical therapy, occupational therapy, deaf teachers--almost everything available to the handicapped in the Milwaukee Public Schools is in that building to some extent.''

To provide all 190 schools in the district with the kinds of facilities available at Gaenslen, they say, would be prohibitively expensive.

'Educationally Inappropriate'

But despite the obvious care and thoughtfulness that went into the new facility, some in the special-education community are saying that the Gaenslen approach to integration does not go far enough.

'It's educationally inappropriate,'' says Lou Brown, a noted expert in the field who teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

"Most of us are thinking kids with disabilities should be going to their home schools,'' he says. Gaenslen, with handicapped pupils bused in from around the city, is still a separate school.

Moreover, he points out, the school's ratio of handicapped students to nonhandicapped students--approximately 387 to 195--is "grossly distorted.''

A Polar Debate

Mr. Brown and experts like him are at one end of a debate currently raging in the field--the debate over how to serve all handicapped children in regular school settings. Programs like Gaenslen's, which offer a moderately progressive approach to the problem, may find themselves squarely in the center of that argument.

On the other side of the debate are experts like Edwin W. Martin, who was the first assistant secretary in the U.S. Education Department to oversee special-education services. Now the president and chief executive officer of the Human Resources Center in Albertson, N.Y., Mr. Martin says Gaenslen's program seems an "attractive'' one.

"Parents are sometimes forced to choose between a good but separate program and an academic program that would not get their children the support services, peer relationships, or positive development of self confidence you get in a special school,'' he says. "I see parents struggle with that all the time.''

'Conservative' Change

In Milwaukee, these larger issues in the national debate became practical questions during the five years of Gaenslen's development.

Parents--and some regular classroom teachers--were at first apprehensive about combining the two schools. "Milwaukee is a conservative city,'' notes Linda Oliver, who heads the old Gaenslen school's parent group and works as an aide at the new school.

"The parents of severely handicapped children had a tough time with this,'' she recalls. "They were afraid of kids pushing or hitting their children.''

As an advocate for the idea, Ms. Oliver says she stressed that what Gaenslen school officials were attempting to do was "integrate,'' rather than "mainstream''--a term that carried a negative connotation for some parents.

"I said, 'you're not talking about dumping a kid in a room with 30 or 40 other kids and having them lose everything they've learned,''' she said.

'We Really Agonized'

Planners also deliberated on the question of how the nonhandicapped children would cope with their new schoolmates--particularly during lunch, when they might be seated alongside students who had to be fed by aides.

"We really agonized about it,'' said Marleen Olecki, the mother of a nonhandicapped child who attends the new school.

"We even thought of having a table at one end and putting it behind a screen at one point,'' she says.

Gaenslen's administrators felt pressure of another kind coming from the central administration and from advocates of the disabled. In contrast to many parents, they said Gaenslen was moving too slowly toward full integration.

"It was our feeling that if you did not start off with as much integration as possible on day one, it would be difficult to move to that as the year progressed,'' Mr. Malloy says.

Ms. Vick, who was principal at the old Gaenslen School for nine years before moving to the new facility, favored a more conservative approach.

"Why force it and take 10 steps backward,'' she asks, "when you can move a little more slowly and go forward?''

Partly as a result of that disagreement, school officials have decided to conduct a nationwide search for a principal experienced in both regular and special education, rather than automatically appointing Ms. Vick principal of the new Gaenslen as planned.

In addition to these special-education considerations, the Milwaukee school board has had to address other community concerns brought to light by the closing of the old Fratney school. In response to pressure from neighborhood parents, the board recently voted to keep the school open as a magnet school offering bilingual and bicultural programming.

'Just Like You and Me'

"One of the fears is that opening that school up might encourage people here to go back to the old Fratney,'' Ms. Vick says.

But for now, Gaenslen is operating relatively smoothly after its low-key opening last month.

At recess, some nonhandicapped students are volunteering to watch over their disabled schoolmates and help push their wheelchairs. And some preschool teachers have begun to combine their classes for an hour of storytelling in the afternoon.

When questioned about the adjustments they have had to make in dealing with their new handicapped schoolmates, many nonhandicapped students merely shrug.

"They're human,'' says Angie Mercado, a nondisabled 6th grader. "They're just like you and me.''

Vol. 07, Issue 32

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