Manassas Journal Messenger | Special education makes changes

Sue Kelly’s students listened intently to her explain the intricacies of telling time. The second-graders at Manassas’ Baldwin Elementary School sat on the floor looking up at their teacher expectantly.

They patiently waited for their seated teacher to turn the hands of the clock before raising their hands to give the appropriate time.

Tiffany answered 4 o’clock before quickly changing her answer to 3:45.

“I like the way you self-corrected,” said Kelly.

While classmates practiced as a group, another student worked at his desk one-on-one with special education teacher Nancy Emanuel.

“He needed the extra help,” said Emanuel. “The other students are doing it mentally. He needed to have a clock in his hand to understand the concepts.”

This cooperative process is at the heart of “inclusion.”

The term refers to special education students being taught alongside regular education students, with accommodations such as working in small groups to focus on weak subject areas. Often, this requires the tag-team efforts of special education and regular education teachers in the same classrooms.

While special education students benefit from exposure to the regular curriculum, inclusion also promotes social interaction for both special and regular education students, according to educators.

“It’s a good idea. It’s not always right for every child,” said Emanuel, who rotates among several classes and pulls some students out for language arts and math lessons in a trailer behind the school.

Inclusion is the bedrock of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which mandated free and appropriate instruction for all children in the least restrictive environment.

The law, now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, was reauthorized in November 2004.

While inclusion is not a mandatory one-size-fits-all cure for special needs children, the “least restrictive environment” results in a majority of special education children being taught with regular education students for most of the day.

Currently, almost half of the nation’s 6.8 million students with disabilities spend at least 80 percent of their school day in a regular education classroom, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“There is a better understanding among the public and among teachers as to what constitutes a learning disability,” said James Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, who said the rates of identifying attention deficit disorder, autism and other learning disabilities peaked in the mid-90s.

“Twenty years ago, we were always trying to justify why a child needed special education, why we had to remove the child from a regular education program,” said Tony Lodovico, director of special education for Manassas City Schools. “Now, we need to justify why we can’t serve this child in a regular education setting with accommodations.”

Manassas, whose special education enrollment is about 12 percent of the total 6,738-student population, just set aside $150,000 and two and a half staff positions to start inclusion at the 12th-grade level. Parents had been vocal about expanding inclusion past 11th grade, whose first inclusion program started in the current school year.

“A lot of these children in special education, they do have the ability, it’s just a matter of keeping the focus,” said Christine Finnie, co-chair of Manassas’ Special Education Advisory Committee. “Inclusion also is good for self-esteem for kids that age,” said Finnie, whose daughter is in special education at Grace E. Metz Middle School.

Lori Carpenter says she has learned the ropes of Prince William County Public School’s special education through trial and error.

Carpenter has two special needs children — a 16-year-old at a special education school and a 10-year-old at Neabsco Elementary School. Her younger son, who has been identified as being emotionally disturbed with a bipolar disorder, began self-contained classes — those with only special education students — at Neabsco two years ago. Now, the fifth grader is mainstreamed in a regular education class in the mornings.

He has progressed enough to move to complete immersion [inclusion] next year at Benton Middle School, but he’ll still benefit from additional support in language arts, math and social studies, according to Carpenter.

“I think Tim will strive being in an immersion class with kids . . .without disabilities,” said Carpenter, who credited her son’s teacher, Kathe Carney, and Neabsco’s special education program, with her son’s progress over the last two years.

Mainstreaming self-contained students requires a delicate balance of support and academic strategies, according to Carney, who oversees a program at Neabsco that draws students from several schools.

“It’s demoralizing. It’s hard when they have to come back [to self-contained classes],” said Carney.

It’s important for parents and educators to recognize that inclusion is not appropriate for every student, according to Carney, Lodovico and Kay Cooper, supervisor of learning disability for Prince William County Public Schools.

But even children in fully self-contained classes interact with regular education students for fine arts and physical education classes.

“Very few kids in regular schools are in one room all day long with other students with disabilities,” said Cooper.

About 12 percent of the county’s approximately 66,000 students are in some form of special education.

Inclusion began at the high school level in the late 80s, and now it exists at every grade, according to Cooper.

Most of the county’s special education inclusion students have specific learning disabilities or speech impairment, according to Cooper.

There are still some parents of regular education students who are less than receptive to inclusion classes because they feel their children may be held back. But the beauty of inclusion is that regular education students can also benefit from having another teacher in the classroom, according to Lodovico.

“We’re trying hard to help them understand that,” said Lodovico, who said that in most cases only teachers are able to identify special education students in classrooms.


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