Parents of preschoolers without disabilities who are attending “inclusion” classes at three Atlanta-area elementary schools are looking for other arrangements after being told that the pilot programs can no longer accommodate their children.
Michael J. Vanairsdale, the superintendent of the 75,000- student Fulton County, Ga., public schools, sent certified letters last month to parents at Summit Hill, Woodland, and Esther Jackson elementary schools saying that because of growth in the number of children with disabilities, all other children would need to leave the program.
The Georgia district is currently serving 38 preschoolers in the program. But schooling must be made available to another 35 children with special needs by Dec. 1, and 150 youngsters are on a waiting list for the program.
“Available classroom space has not increased at the same rate,” Mr. Vanairsdale wrote in the Oct. 21 letter, noting that the district is required by federal law to serve children with special needs. “Therefore, Fulton County Schools has made the difficult decision to end this program your child attends.”
Originally, the parents were told they had until Nov. 23 to find other options. But after numerous complaints, the superintendent sent another letter saying that parents have until the end of the calendar year to pull their children out of the classes, which are paid for with federal money and are meant to expose children with disabilities to peers without disabilities. About 20 children will be displaced by the change in policy.
Looking for a Solution
Parents, meanwhile, are hoping to get Mr. Vanairsdale to reverse his decision and are making a number of suggestions for how the district could continue the successful program.
“That’s the reason we’re upset. We’re wanting to help them come up with a solution,” said Ann Lachmann. Her 4-year-old daughter Emily, who doesn’t have a disability, attends a class at Summit Hill Elementary School in Alpharetta, Ga. “The opportunity for peer modeling will be gone.”
A stay-at-home mother, Ms. Lachmann is considering placing her child in a church-run preschool program, but she noted that parents who work outside the house don’t have as much flexibility in their choices.
Finding any open preschool spaces while the school year is in full swing also will be hard, she said.
Parents have even suggested the possibility that they pay a fee to keep the inclusion classes intact.
“We certainly don’t expect a free ride,” Ms. Lachmann said. She added that grants or state funds might also be available to keep the program going at least until the end of the school year.
In a letter sent to district leaders last week, the parents made other suggestions as well, including that the district offer morning and afternoon classes and look for open classrooms at other schools.
Mitzi Edge, a spokeswoman for the district, said that while school officials were still looking for alternatives, “the main issue is that we have to find space for our special-needs children.”
Meanwhile, the Georgia Advocacy Office, which promotes the legal rights of people with disabilities, is arguing that by removing the other children, the district will not be serving the preschoolers with special needs in the “least restrictive environment,” as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and other federal laws.
“Fulton County has made a terrible decision for both students with and without disabilities, flying in the face of current theories for the protection and enhancement of the lives of persons with disabilities,” Ruby Moore, the executive director of the office, wrote to the superintendent.
In addition to the loss of opportunities for children with disabilities to “observe and learn typical behavior,” Ms. Moore wrote, students without disabilities would miss out on the chance to “form friendships and associations that may insulate them against the prejudices that inevitably arise from insulation and segregation.”
Laura Stewart, the president of the North Fulton PTA council, said that the parents’ dilemma points to the success of the inclusion model.
“The parents involved are so pleased—both the parents of the special-needs children and the typical children,” she said.
But, Ms. Stewart added, the district’s action is a tremendous burden on parents. “When parents make decisions for the school year, they make decisions for the whole year. It’s hard to displace kids at any time of the year.”