The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed in 1975. You may think of it as "mainstreaming". Or you may have heard the term "least restrictive environment." It changed in a dramatic way who is eligible to receive free public education in this country.
In Howard County our Early Intervention program for children with special needs is superb. (Yes, my music program with RECC students falls under the umbrella of early intervention.) I also have experienced the program as a parent. I have participated in a number of focus groups and discussions about what Howard County does right in the area of Special Education. Parents speak highly of their children's experience in Early Intervention programs.
I want to write today about what happens after a child leaves the RECC program and moves up into the elementary grades and beyond. How well are we doing?
I attended a Board of Ed. Candidate events several years ago where parents and teachers talked about middle school students whose special needs or behavior issues were so involved that they adversely affected classes for all of the students. Some of the comments that concerned me:
- Not enough support staff for the Special Ed. children in regular classroom setting
- Not enough training for Gen Ed teachers
- Parents pushing to get their kids identified as GT in order to get away from disruptive class environments
- Teachers who were good with special needs kids were then given more and more of them, beyond their ability to be successful
- Teachers who didn't handle them well/didn't want them received fewer and fewer, leading to inequitable work loads.
The IDEA made a point of including children with special needs into the mainstream. Each child has an individual education plan (IEP) which commits to a plan of action for achieving specific goals -- in the least restrictive environment. This means that inclusion in the general classroom activities is deemed to be the best for the child, with a hierarchy of incrementally more supported or "restrictive" methods to be used as needed.
I overheard a conversation recently in which a para-educator or a one-on-one lamented that her ALS students were not getting the education they really needed. When she took them to the Gen Ed classroom as dictated by their daily plan, they were often miserable. The setting of the class and its demands were unnecessarily upsetting and harsh to them. The subject material was often irrelevant to them. So they acted out.
This is not the first time I have heard this narrative from support staff and teachers. A child is brought to a class and the Gen Ed teacher tells the support professional, "Just take him out. He's disrupting the whole class." The support professional doesn't know what to do. "This is where he's supposed to be according to the plan. Where am I supposed to take him?"
ALS, or Academic Life Skills, is the name for a program which (and I am not an expert here) largely consists of children on the autism spectrum, though not exclusively. There are many children in the Howard County Schools who are served by Special Education, who have IEPs, or receive accommodations, whose integration into the regular classroom setting is appropriate and successful. I am not lumping all Special Needs students together here.
Are we doing to best for this smaller group of students? Is making them go to uncomfortable class settings where they must "get through" a session that may be completely meaningless to them, where the teacher may not even want them there--is that truly the least restrictive environment?
This is an extremely complicated issue. The school system must follow the law. But I am hoping that the law allows schools systems some leeway for interpretation. Shouldn't these students be immersed in a program which is right for them? Shouldn't support staff be there to support them in positive environments, with meaningful goals? Just getting through Reading Group without having a meltdown is, by itself, not a meaningful goal. In fact, if that is all school becomes, it is in no way the "least restrictive environment."
We push, push, push for College and Career Ready these days. Someone needs to shout from the rooftops to advocate for these students, for whom Academic Life Skills should mean fostering the capacity for enjoyment, supporting the development of capability, opening doors to live a successful life. I know is what the school system means to do.
I just don't know if we are doing it.