- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2002

The girls in Frank Marino's "Dance Through Cultures" class are working on their merengue today. The students from freshmen to seniors at George Mason High School in Falls Church march, shimmy, step and spin to the blaring Latin music as their teacher counts out the rhythm.

Senior Danna Lippman, smiling widely, sits on the perimeter of the dance floor, wiggling her knees and squeezing the nubbly green ball she has been clutching all day. Every so often, she rises to her feet and moves toward Mr. Marino, following the beat of her own drummer.

Miss Lippman, 19, has Angelman syndrome, a 15th chromosome disorder with specific characteristics, such as slow motor development and mental retardation, that leave her unable to talk. She is one of a handful of students with moderate to severe disabilities who participate in a program of inclusive education at George Mason.

Inclusion provides specially designed instruction and supports to students with special needs within regular-education schools, instead of containing people within special-education classrooms. The practice differs from "mainstreaming," in which students are invited to participate only when they are able to keep pace without benefit of adaptive curricula. Within inclusive education, general-education classes are structured to meet the needs of all students.

Miss Lippman and the other students with disabilities spend much of their school day at George Mason enmeshed in the general population. Their home base is a dedicated classroom supervised by special-education teacher Linda Spencer and staffed by instructional assistants who offer support in many activities, both large and small. Depending on individual needs and abilities, the students attend elective and academic courses alongside their nondisabled peers.

Inclusive education is healthy and good for everyone, advocates say. Students with disabilities gain by being accepted in their community, exposed to appropriate behavior and learning alternate ways of communication. Regular-education students learn self-awareness and introspection, tolerance, friendship and compassion.

Not everyone is sold on the practice. Some parents say inclusion is not right for their children with disabilities because of their special needs, and some parents of typically developing children fear that the needs of those with disabilities may prove too distracting for other students and teachers.

Miss Lippman's parents, Hal Lippman and Sue Ferguson of Falls Church, are strong proponents.

"It's logical, isn't it?" says Mr. Lippman, an evaluations specialist with the U.S. Agency for International Development. "Inclusion offers things to Danna that are simply not available in a segregated facility: exposure to and models of the way the broad community functions and the way people interact with each other."

Then there is the other just as integral aspect of the practice.

"It's very important that Danna be part of the regular-ed setting so that the entire school community is aware of and comes to know children with disabilities," says Ms. Ferguson, an education consultant.

"When we and you grew up, no one ever saw anyone like Danna," her father adds. "Out of sight, out of mind, and certainly not part of 'the world.'"

Children such as Miss Lippman were not always guaranteed an education.

Before the passage of the Education for the Handicapped Act in 1975, which was the precursor to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with more severe disabilities could be served by private nonprofit organizations or special government programs, be sent to institutions or be kept at home.

The legislation required that students with disabilities be educated with their nondisabled peers unless their Individualized Education Program (IEP) could not be implemented in general education even with supplemental aids and services. The IEP spells out the educational goals and the services each child with disabilities will receive.

The interpretation of the legislation, however, was limited by what professionals knew, and it was a long road to inclusive programming, says Carol Quirk, who holds a doctorate in education and is a director of the nonprofit Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education.

When IDEA was reauthorized in 1997, it indicated a role for the general-education teacher as part of the student's planning team. A requirement that all children should access the general-education curriculum also was added.

"This does not mean that all students are expected to achieve the same academic goals as their nondisabled peers, but it does mean that they should be taught within the general-education classroom and that their individual goals can be met by teachers who collaborate to make modifications for them within the general education classroom lesson," Ms. Quirk says.

Nearly 6 million American children today hold IEPs documenting disabilities that range from mild learning problems to hearing impairment to mental retardation. Toward that end, special education in 1999-2000 laid claim to about 21 percent of the total public elementary and secondary education budget of $373 billion, Department of Education spokesman Jim Bradshaw says.

Making it work

Many severely disabled children are included in their neighborhood schools starting in their earliest years.

Tyler Klatzkin, 8, has attended Clemens Crossing Elementary School, a public school in Columbia, Md., since kindergarten. Now a third-grader, he is the only child in his class with visible disabilities, says his father, Mike Klatzkin, a financial consultant.

Tyler's disabilities, which fall within the autism spectrum, include cerebral palsy and visual-field deficits. He can walk unassisted, communicate verbally and use a computer. He has a thing for pinwheels and likes to belt out "God Bless America."

Tyler loves school and he loves to learn, but the disabilities make his journey difficult. But Mr. Klatzkin and Tyler's mother, Terri, say they believe their son's placement among his nondisabled peers is correct on all levels.

"The children who sit right next to him love to help him," Mr. Klatzkin says. "They understand that he can get kind of loud sometimes. They don't understand why it happens, but they understand it does happen. I think that what he does for the other children is probably greater than what they do for him. … They're learning it's OK for people to be different."

The interactions between Tyler and his classmates are encouraged by school staff, who bolster opportunities for the children to work together.

"You're not achieving inclusion by having them in the same place," Mr. Klatzkin says. "They have to be part of the group. Inclusion doesn't come easy. It requires people working together and believing that it is the right thing, because if each person on the team doesn't have the vision, then they're not going to pull it together."

Another choice

Some parents of children with disabilities disagree that inclusion is best. They might be among the many who send their children to one of the nation's 1,596 public special-education schools. Virginia is home to 18 such schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics; the District has 10.

Columbia mother Amanda Cheong and her husband, Hao, send their daughter, Kristin, to Cedar Lane School, one of about 50 public special-education schools in Maryland.

Kristin, 13, has a myriad of disabilities of unknown origin that have left her cognitively impaired and medically fragile.

She is wheelchair-bound. She has a dysfunctional swallowing reflex, so she must receive her nutrition four times daily via a tube that has been surgically implanted in her stomach. She is nonverbal and communicates with a personal communication device provided by the school system.

Her mother says she does not believe Kristin should be in a regular-education situation because of the care she needs. Yet even if Kristin were not medically fragile, says her mother, her family still would choose to place her in a segregated environment.

"If you can get education and socialization in the same building, all well and good," Ms. Cheong says, "but my daughter has a very slow response time. It takes her a long time to be able to activate her responses to access the switches. In a regular classroom, the pace is too fast."

By the very nature of its population, she says, Cedar Lane is rich in the resources children such as Kristin require.

"They have standers [to help children stand], corner chairs, special classroom chairs adapted to the children so they can get out of the wheelchair. … All this equipment is very, very expensive," Ms. Cheong says. "Kristin will be moved into different pieces of equipment every two hours. I thought that [at a regular-education school] she'd end up sitting around in her wheelchair for longer periods because they wouldn't have that amount of equipment."

Inclusion is great for some, Ms. Cheong says, "but for my particular child, that is the wrong decision. I totally understand that other parents want that choice, and that's fine. I just want to make sure we always have our choice, as well."

Trouble with inclusion

One family's choice was threatened last year when they tried to involve their son in inclusive programming at a Denver public school. The boy, now 6, has been diagnosed with autism and Fragile X syndrome, a genetically inherited form of cognitive impairment with effects ranging from mild learning disability to severe mental retardation.

Just a month into kindergarten, the couple was asked to "justify his presence in the classroom," says the child's mother, an educator.

Her son made noises and wailing sounds that sometimes distracted the teacher and the students, she says. He frequently threw things and cried when he was unhappy. He periodically pinched or scratched his paraprofessional.

"However, none of his behaviors was found to be unduly extreme as to put children in danger or out of the realm of a normal child's misbehavior," she says.

Four sets of parents organized a public meeting, inviting all parents in the school community to attend if they were concerned "for their children's safety and how their tax dollars were being spent," among other issues, the child's mother says. About 150 people gathered, including the principal, a handful of school officials and counsel, as well as the complainants and their lawyer.

"It was ugly," she says.

Denver Public Schools (DPS) listened to the grievances; the parents later filed a lawsuit against the school system asking that the child be removed from the classroom for reasons of safety and so that their children's educational experiences would not be disturbed by him.

"DPS responded quickly and strongly, by letter, that the child had a legal right to be in the classroom, that he posed no danger to his classmates and that his behavior was within acceptable bounds. And, if they chose to pursue it, they'd lose," she says.

Thom Miller, coordinator of the special-education program at the Legal Center for People With Disabilities and Older People, worked with the couple to ensure the school district upheld its obligations to the child. The nonprofit law firm is the designated protection and advocacy agency for Colorado, receiving federal funding to protect people with disabilities.

"This couple was dealing with one of the most hostile parent groups I've ever seen," he says. "But in every case I've been involved in where a parent group has tried to get a kid removed, it gets down to one thing: 'Our kids aren't safe around your kid.' I get that. I get why parents' next inclination will be, 'If you don't take your kid out voluntarily, we'll get the school district to kick him out.' If it were my child, I'd be hard-pressed not to react the same way. But it gets down to people not understanding what it's like to spend a day having a disability."

He points out that students with special needs require support to ensure that all students continue to learn and everyone is safe. If parents of a student without disabilities believe there is a problem in the classroom, he says, they should contact administrators in the district-level special-education office, who will review the matter.

The IEP governs the placement of the student with disabilities, and district-level professionals will be guided by the decision of an IEP committee, which includes teachers and administrators.

Demands on teacher?

What about the students without disabilities? Seattle educator and researcher Debbie Staub spent three years studying the effects of inclusion on the general-education population for her 1998 book, "Delicate Threads: Friendships Between Children With and Without Special Needs in Inclusive Settings."

Ms. Staub says teachers and parents usually have two main concerns. The first is whether time demands on the general-education teacher will be too great for global effectiveness.

"Research that has looked at teacher engagement has not found any significant differences in the amount of teacher engagement when students with disabilities were included in the classrooms versus teacher engagement and time in classes that did not," she says.

Perception to the contrary might originate from misunderstandings about the type of support that will be built into the academic environment to support children with disabilities so they can participate, she explains.

The second most common concern Ms. Staub reports is whether students with disabilities will have behavioral issues that affect the academic environment.

In fact, "when students with disabilities are included with typically developing peers, the students with disabilities will usually behave more appropriately because they have peers who can model age-appropriate behaviors," she says. If not, "then a collaborative team the general-ed and the special-ed staff need to put in place those supports that might be needed to assist the child in displaying appropriate behavior."

Back at George Mason, Miss Lippman's behavior is appropriate, if somewhat unconventional. She is seated at a table in teacher Maria Shields' visual-arts class. The class is creating "resists" today, employing a technique similar to batik in which soap is used to make a nearly imperceptible image on black construction paper. Once the paper is dunked in water, the true picture is revealed.

Hand over hand, paraprofessional Norma Sorto helps Miss Lippman scrape white lines onto the black paper.

One ninth-grade girl sitting near Miss Lippman says the older teen "gets a lot of attention and does a lot of the same things we do." Another student, a boy, says he thinks it is a good idea to have students such as Miss Lippman at school.

"She should get a chance to learn," he says. "Everybody deserves a chance."

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