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Inclusion gets intensive review by District 65 board

The oft-thorny issue of including mildly disabled students in regular classrooms was the subject of a two-and-a-half-hour examination at a working meeting of the Evanston/Skokie District 65 School Board Tuesday night, and it emerged with likelihood of a “go” for another year.

The oft-thorny issue of including mildly disabled students in regular classrooms was the subject of a two-and-a-half-hour examination at a working meeting of the Evanston/Skokie District 65 School Board Tuesday night, and it emerged with likelihood of a “go” for another year.

Although working meetings are designed for discussion, not action, the board was subjected to a full-court press by a parade of administrators, teachers, and parents, complete with an elaborate PowerPoint presentation and a plethora of surveys by Assistant Superintendent Michael Robey.

It gave the appearance of a love fest, although at the insistence of some board members, the witnesses did recognize that parts of the program might need more work.

Teachers, for example, stressed the need for more planning time, as well as consistency in the makeup of the inclusion teams and vigilance in providing balance in the classroom work.

Parents, on the other hand, were concerned with maintaining small class sizes so teachers can spend the extra time required to meet the needs of the inclusion students without neglecting the non-disabled kids.

Inclusion involves placing mildly disabled students into regular classrooms, alongside non-disabled students. For the most part, regular teachers are trained to accommodate the special needs of the included students, although specialized help is available for those who need it.

According to the presenters, it’s a win-win situation for all concerned. The inclusion students are given experience in dealing with the “real world” that they eventually will have to deal with as functioning adults. And even the non-disabled students benefit from greater awareness of associating with their peers who require special consideration. A number of parents of non-disabled students supported that view at the meeting.

Financially, proponents of inclusion contend that it costs less to include the mildly disabled in a regular classroom than in a special needs school.

In the case of District 65, initial data showed a sharp decline (from 125 to 75) in the number of students referred to special education from 2008-09 to 2009-10, Robey said. “This decreased trend is expected to continue with continued development of all of our interventions across the district,” he wrote in a memo to Superintendent Hardy Murphy.

Critics, however, contend that inclusion merely moves the specialized teachers from the special school into a corner of the regular school classroom to cope with issues that cannot be dealt with by the regular classroom teacher.

To conduct additional research on the issue some board members recently took a field trip to an inclusion school in Bloomington, Ind., where they were able to witness first-hand the experience of a school that is further along in the inclusion process.

Robey noted that the district ended its first year with a celebration for all staff members involved with the program on May 19 that included a visit by Stephanie Lee, former director of the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education.

“She was very complimentary of our initial efforts,” Robey said in his memo to Murphy, “and encouraged the staff to continue our forward momentum. Ongoing planning is continuing at the building and district-wide level.”

Charles Bartling

A resident of Evanston since 1975, Chuck Bartling holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has extensive experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, radio stations and business-oriented magazines.

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