The Only Way To Fly, Inclusively

by Carl D. Roberts and Carolyn Teigland

Five years ago, the Cecil County Public Schools in Maryland embarked on an aggressive schedule to fully include all students with special needs in the regular education setting to be consistent with the most recent interpretation of “least restrictive environment.”

At the time, 59 percent of special education students were receiving their instruction in the regular education setting. By last December, 89 percent of students with individual education plans were fully participating in the regular classroom, being fully exposed with proper accommodations to the regular education curriculum. Translating percentages into numbers of students, 1,722 of Cecil County’s 1,931 special education students were included in the regular education classroom during the past school year.

Not only have we fully included the vast majority of our special-needs population, but we also have reduced the number of students identified as being eligible for special education.

This has not been an easy journey, and by no means are we done. In the fifth year of the plan, our five high schools are in the early stages of full inclusion as special-needs students matriculate to the 9th grade, having experienced inclusion during their elementary and/or middle school years.

Our vision is to successfully include 100 percent of special education students in the regular education setting to the fullest extent possible. All students will receive the services they require in their neighborhood school, allowing them to attend school with their age-appropriate peers.

Free Advice
We’ve learned several lessons about what it takes from a system leadership perspective to make inclusion happen.

No. 1: Provide strong leadership. The board of education, superintendent and top leadership throughout the school system must be the leading advocates for inclusive education. The energy and resources required must be guaranteed or the initiative will fail.

The doubters within and outside the school system look to the leadership to determine how committed they are. There can be no weak link. Both central-office administrators and principals must share the vision for inclusive education.

No. 2: Dispel the myths concerning resources early on. Including special-needs students in regular classrooms is not inexpensive. The Cecil County budget for special education was $12.7 million in FY ‘02 and will be $21.7 million in FY ‘09. Economy-to-scale cost-saving strategies do not work in an inclusive education setting.

No. 3: Ensure training, training and more training. The biggest fear that regular education teachers have is that they do not have the knowledge or skills necessary to work with special education students. The biggest fear special educators have is that they do not have the knowledge or skills to be successful in the regular education classroom.

We trained our regular educators but forgot in the early years about the change for our special educators. Training must be ongoing and individualized for the unique needs of the students and classrooms in question.

No. 4: Recognize that passions run high. Community advocates and parents of special needs students are feverishly passionate about the rights and needs of their children.

Parents will be concerned about a new program, especially if they believe that somehow their children are going to receive less attention than before. Include them in the planning and training early on in the process. Effective communication with this powerful and influential constituency must be ongoing and two-way.

No. 5: Get expertise if you don’t already have it! The Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education has been a partner with our school district since 2002. We are fortunate that the Maryland State Department of Education funds the involvement of these dedicated professionals. The knowledge, skill and commitment this organization brings to the school district’s central administration and school-based personnel are critical factors in the success of our inclusion efforts.

A Narrowing Gap
We believed at the beginning of this initiative that including students with special needs in the regular education setting was the right thing to do. It made sense that exposing students with disabilities to the essential curriculum and to peers without special needs would offer excellent role models and higher performance on class, county and state assessments.

Our special education subgroup is improving and closing the learning gap when compared with the non-special education student population. Students who previously performed significantly below grade level are now reading and working at or just below grade level. However, we still have a performance gap that becomes more difficult as students enter middle and high school.

What we knew but didn’t realize was the extent of the positive benefit in the social realm for both disabled and nondisabled students. We have cases of previously nonverbal children who can now express themselves orally and through writing. Students who did not smile or show emotions now brighten up each day when they enter the classroom and see their friends. Regular education students welcome special needs students as their classmates and as their friends.

Our children are experiencing learning in a diverse setting that is free of discrimination. While we knew it would improve the lives of special needs children, the change has been truly inspiring.

Social Gains
Sherri Isaacs, an elementary school teacher, shares this description of an autistic child who was included in her 3rd-grade classroom: “Blake came to us fairly nonverbal. The only thing he would do is repeat what others said to him, and he had a very limited sight vocabulary. Now he responds to greetings from others and has significantly increased the number of sight words he recognizes. With proper accommodations, he is being exposed to the grade-level curricula and materials.”

The greatest growth, Isaacs adds, has been in Blake’s social behaviors: “He can now sit and participate with other students. The other stu-dents respond to him well and look after him.”

Sharon Boyd, who has a son with autism in our schools, has witnessed a marked difference between a self-contained classroom and an inclusion classroom. Exposure to proper behavior of same-age peers has had a tremendous positive impact on Jared.

“I was totally against inclusion at the beginning, but the staff at Jared’s elementary school is totally awesome,” Boyd says. “The screaming and physical gyrations have ceased and Jared is now dealing with grade-level content. I give the teachers all the credit. The school system promised and the teachers have ensured that all the proper supports for Jared are in place. He now speaks to me in full sentences. I believe the modeling from the other children has been a real positive. They have taken Jared under their wing.”

There are so many champions of inclusive education in Cecil County that we cannot name them all. Past and current leadership, teachers and paraprofessionals, parents and students, the Maryland Coalition of Inclusive Education and the state department of education have all played key roles.

It’s the right thing to do for children. All children deserve access to the regular education program. It is not easy and it is not for the half-hearted. But if you truly love children, it is the only way to fly.

Carl Roberts, who retired in June as superintendent of the Cecil County Public Schools in Elkton, Md., is executive director of the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland. E-mail: Carolyn Teigland is associate superintendent for education services in Cecil County.