Special education classes have permanently closed shop at James Russell Lowell Elementary School.
Students with disabilities are no longer shuttled to a room down the hall to learn a separate curriculum with different teachers. Now, with the help of their regular classroom instructors, “co-teachers,” aides, and classmates, those children receive specialized instruction while sitting next to their peers.
Gesturing around a colorful room packed with teaching materials but devoid of children, Patti Sclafani-Hinkley, a special education teacher here, says: “I don’t call this the resource room anymore,” where children previously went for special education classes. “I call it my office.”
Five years ago, Steven Gould, then principal of the 400-student school in this suburb of Boston, set out to mainstream every special education student in his school.
He introduced two different programs that have worked hand in hand 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.
Following the reforms, achievement-test scores rose, and students were more engaged in their learning, were more self-directed, and felt a greater responsibility for their studies, according to a report from the Academy for Education Development, which reviewed the school for the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education programs.
“For students with disabilities, the stigma has all but disappeared,” the report says.
Gould believes that educating students with disabilities is a basic civil rights issue. Taking such students away from their peers, he argues, is fundamentally wrong. “Separate but equal is not equal,” says the school administrator.
In 1999, he started making changes at Lowell by asking all teachers and the personnel who worked with special education students to hold grade-level meetings once a month. The meetings had no set agendas. The goal was to exchange ideas, not to discuss specific problems. That would come later. Initially, Gould says, he just wanted to get everyone used to meeting regularly in a structured way.
Then, as part of the “comprehensive school reform” grant Lowell received from the federal government in fall 2000, the teachers began learning how to modify their instruction for each student. Such “differentiated instruction” benefits all students, but works especially well for children in special education who need more support in certain subject areas, says Gould.
Teachers also learned how to use “The Responsive Classroom.” The classroom-management system, developed by the nonprofit Northeast Foundation for Children, in Greenfield, Mass., stresses teaching students appropriate behavior.
Initially, teachers resisted the idea of mainstreaming youngsters with an enormous range of needs, abilities, and behavioral issues, says Marilyn Hollisian. She’s currently serving as the school’s acting principal while Gould fills in as an acting assistant superintendent for the Watertown district office.
“People saw it as mandated instead of a framework,” says Hollisian, who worked full time as a facilitator for the teachers while the school was adopting the new teaching models.
Once it became clear that teachers had the authority to mold a lot of the practices to their individual teaching styles, “they felt much better about it,” she adds. But tailoring tests and instruction for each child, providing extra help when needed, and adeptly handling behavior problems is “too big a job for one person,” says Gould.
That’s why Lowell Elementary administrators hired an inclusion specialist and a behavioral specialist—in addition to their special education teachers, speech pathologist, occupational therapist, and physical therapist— to help classroom teachers solve specific problems.
On a bright and breezy day in early autumn, Mary Ford is talking to the 26 pupils in her class about the letters they will be writing to their parents. The assignment is part of the afternoon’s language arts lesson.
As if on cue, Peggy McDonald, a special education teacher at Lowell, enters the classroom, positions herself at a table, and starts helping children put their thoughts on paper.
“When you are finished, show your work to me or Mrs. McDonald,” Ford says.
Team teaching has begun.
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’!”
It isn’t clear to a classroom visitor if the child has chronic attention problems.
Five of the students in this class have individualized education plans, or IEPs, but neither McDonald nor Ford spends all her time helping only those children.
A group of girls sitting close to McDonald starts to giggle, and she turns her attention to the outburst. “Is this appropriate writing behavior?” she asks. The girls immediately quiet down.
Even though the teachers make the process look easy, team teaching was at first “a scheduling nightmare,” according to Hollisian. It takes hours of planning, coordination, and group decisionmaking, she adds.
That’s why it’s essential for teachers to have grade-level meetings once a month. Each teacher also meets monthly with the special education instructors and support-staff members who work with her class, to discuss any challenges or problems.
“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.
Outside influences are hard to detect in Fucci’s 1st grade classroom. She runs a tight and respectful ship with her 17 pupils and seems to manage on her own with ease. Still, the training she has received as part of the recent changes in the school show up in subtle ways.
During a writing lesson, a youngster asks Fucci for help. “You know a good strategy to use when you need help,” Fucci advises the girl, “is to ask a friend.”
The girl returns to her table and consults with her neighbor.
At the end of the lesson, Fucci uses a soft, coaxing, patient voice to direct her class to look at their work and decide if they’re finished. Some put their assignments in folders Fucci has laid out. Others, who want to work on the project more, put their work in their cubbyholes.
Fucci’s pupils, two of whom have IEPs, then gather at a carpeted area near a red, vertical schedule that clearly maps out their day. Fucci tells her class what they will be doing next: going to get snacks. “Is everyone ready to go to snack?” she asks. They respond, “Yes!”
As the class reviews all the steps—getting their lunchboxes and quietly forming a line in the hall—Fucci refers to the visual schedule on the board, which was designed with the help of the school’s inclusion specialist.
In this classroom, just as in the rest of the school, the teacher builds social-skills exercises into the lessons, defines expectations clearly, and teaches children to help each other and to take responsibility for their work.
“The special education students don’t see themselves as different,” Fucci says. Because of the new teaching techniques, she argues, the class “knows that everyone has strengths and weaknesses.”
Help Spills Over
The work the school has done to create a safe environment for its special education students has paid off for Kyle Martin, a 5th grader at Lowell.
Because Kyle has severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, a nonverbal learning disorder, and sensory difficulties, he has trouble interacting socially with his peers and communicating appropriately, according to his mother, Michelle Martin.
“Kyle is a prime target to be picked on,” she says.
When the boy started at Lowell in kindergarten, Martin says, she heard parents and even staff members complain about “that loud kid with the issues.”
Most of that has changed now, she says. Martin has been assertive in speaking to Kyle’s class and to parent groups about his behaviors.
Some parents wondered if it was disruptive for their children to have different teachers wandering in and out of the classroom all the time.
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.
“If people are uninformed, that is what scares them,” says Martin.
Being in a mainstream classroom forces Kyle to behave more appropriately, she adds. “The bar is lowered if you are in a room with a bunch of other kids who have issues,” she says. “There is no typical model.”
Still, fully including a child with severe special needs is not an easy venture.
For example, 10-year-old Patrick Vershbow, a 4th grader at Lowell, has a genetic condition called Fragile X that has affected all areas of his development.
He didn’t say his first word until he was 5, relies heavily on routines, has trouble eating and drinking, and sometimes has seizures, according to his mother, Pamela Vershbow.
Having Patrick, who has a full-time aide, in your classroom “is a lot of work,” Vershbow acknowledges.
Patrick would typically be placed in a very specialized school for students with severe developmental difficulties, but the environment at Lowell is “more natural,” his mother says.
As a result, Patrick now knows how to read, she says, a skill that seems out of reach for some children with Fragile X.
Because special education students are mainstreamed at Lowell, Michelle Martin says, the children here have learned that “not everyone is alike, and some people have disabilities.”
“And you work with them,” she says, “you don’t put them in a separate room.”