When I arrived for the first day at my new school, there was a separate room for “those kids.”
It didn’t matter how I looked at it; there was a clear line drawn between special education students and general education students. They had their own teachers, their own room, their own routines, and their own community. They even had their own curriculum. Those students, most of whom had learning disabilities, were underperforming academically and were often found in the office with referrals for behavior.
During my first year in the classroom, I didn’t even see the special educator who serviced my grade level except at lunch and the occasional planning meeting. The line was there, and even though their grade-level peers were across the hall, that line may as well have been a wall ten feet high. The division between high expectations and low expectations for student success was even greater.
At a national level, many of these students in self-contained classes are labeled as having behavior problems and removed from the general education setting. This sends the message that they are not capable of mastering the same curriculum.
In fact, many self-contained programs do not provide their students with access to higher-order curricula, leaving them even less prepared for college and career than their peers. At my school, we had to make a change.
In 2004, realizing we weren’t meeting the needs of our special education students, we launched a full-inclusion program.
The inclusion program paired a general educator with a special educator and a special education instructional assistant. Our inclusion in schools model, like that of many others, ensured that our students had access to the same curriculum as their peers and were held to high expectations.
Initially, our general education parents were hesitant, but once they saw that the number of adults increased the contact time between their child and the teacher, they were strongly supportive.
We saw a dramatic decrease in the number of special education students being referred to the office. And less time in the office or out on suspension meant more time in the classroom. We also saw increases in academic achievement, student engagement, and overall self-confidence.
Students knew we had high expectations for them and they rose to the challenge. Inclusion also caused us to look at our instructional practice, to ensure that it was more precisely targeted to the needs of each one of our students.
We had to bring the curriculum to the kids, not the kids to the curriculum. And now, with the majority of states adopting the Common Core State Standards(CCSS), there is no better time to reflect on the need for more inclusion in schools.
The CCSS in the hands of an effective educator will prepare our students for college and career. Many naysayers claim that the standards present a one-size-fits-all approach to education and that it just won’t work for our special education students. This just isn’t true.
In fact, the learning progressions in the CCSS actually offer teachers a much more targeted way to identify a student's areas of need. Previous curricula lacked any meaningful coherence between grade levels or within subject areas.
The Common Core State Standards “provide a historic opportunity to improve access to rigorous academic content for students with disabilities” and provide an opportunity to identify more-precisely targeted interventions and supports aimed at producing better outcomes for students.
High-functioning schools and districts are those that provide the least restrictive environment for all students and are as inclusive as the needs of every student will allow.
This isn’t always easy with budget cuts and staffing allocations, but it is imperative that as many students as possible are included in classrooms with their peers.
Inclusion in schools benefits all students, whether or not they have a disability, and it challenges teachers to become the best educators they can be. Inclusion does away with labels and removes the stigma that special education students are “those kids,” making sure everyone understands that they are “our kids.”