By Tessa Raebeck
With research and federal law both supporting increased inclusion of children with disabilities in general education classrooms, American school districts are working on getting as many teachers certified in special education as possible, and developing sound systems for early intervention and response.
Research on inclusion has found that students with disabilities who spend more time in classrooms with their peers not only have higher tests scores and better job prospects, but are also less likely to miss school or act out in class. In response, many districts are trying to shift from general education classrooms to those with teachers who are also certified in special education. But, at a time when school districts are contending with less state aid and a cap on the taxes they can levy, many have found inclusion difficult to implement and struggle to find sufficient resources, funding and teachers who are dual certified in both general and special education.
Aleta Parker, director of Response to Intervention (RTI), the special education program in the Bridgehampton School District, said RTI and the push toward inclusion at Bridgehampton has been “very effective…we’re proud of it and it’s growing and so are we.”
At the Bridgehampton School, which, like many schools nationwide, still has separate special education classrooms, administrators are encouraging teachers to pursue master’s degrees in special education to help the school meet the demands of increased inclusion.
“With this change, students with disabilities now get the opportunity to be educated alongside their non-disabled peers with the full or part-time support of a special education teacher to assist in adapting and modifying instruction,” said Sarina Peddy, who started teaching at the school this year.
Since early intervention is a key component of successful inclusion, there is an ever-increasing need for childhood education teachers who are certified in special education. Ms. Peddy has a bachelor’s degree in childhood education and is in the process of applying to universities where she can earn her master’s degree in special education.
The degree takes two to three years to complete and includes 18 different courses and fieldwork. The district has funding to pay for a portion of its teachers’ tuition rates, but the budget is administered on a first-come, first-served basis. Ms. Peddy is on the waiting list.
Like many districts nationwide, Bridgehampton uses two models to address the special needs of students: Response to Intervention (RTI) and Instructional Support Teams (IST).
Beginning with the screening of all children in general education classrooms, RTI is a multi-tier approach to the early identification and continuing support of students that relies on high-quality, attentive instruction. IST involves collaboration between specialists, teachers and, ideally, parents and uses a team approach to screen students. The models aim to shift the question from, “What’s wrong with the student?” to “What resources can we use to increase the student’s chance for success?”
“That used to be the old model—if there was something wrong with a student, the immediate response was to throw them in special education,” said Ms. Parker.
Dr. Lois Favre, the district’s superintendent and principal, who has a background in special education, agreed, saying the approach used to be, “Get them out of my room, put them in special ed. What did you do to help them? Nothing, put them in special ed…RTI has really changed the look of how we talk about students and their progress in a really positive way.”
“It really is a teacher initiative,” said Ms. Parker, adding that parents are invited to meetings and encouraged to be involved. The team of teachers works hard to identify students early, address the whole issue, including what may be going on at home, and treat each student as an individual when figuring out how to best educate them.
In 1970, four out of five children with disabilities were denied a public education in America, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Many states had laws excluding students from attending public schools, including those who were deaf, blind or “emotionally disturbed or mentally retarded.” Students with disabilities were either excluded from public schools altogether or were kept out of sight of their peers.
Based on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act changed the model in federal law, if not in practice. Enacted in 1975, it mandated that school districts provide a free education that was appropriate for the child’s need in a public school and that the “least restrictive” placement for that student was always sought, defining the ideal placement as in the child’s local school in a general education classroom.
As recently as 2011, however, students with disabilities in New York spent more time in school isolated from students without disabilities than their peers in any other state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, according to the IDEA Data Center.