The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

What Should Special Education Be?

on September 5, 2016

An article in the Huffington Post last month, authored by Rebecca Klein, described the system of special schools for disabled students in Georgia and the lawsuit recently filed against the state by the U.S. Department of Justice. That article triggered my desire to post a piece I wrote many years ago about the system we created when I was the principal of a small rural school district in Oregon. In two episodes—because what I want to say is very long–I will summarize the situation in Georgia and describe our special education program.


The Huffington Post article tells of a lawsuit the federal government has recently filed against the state of Georgia for violating the principles of the American Disabilities Act (ADA). Georgia places all students classified as “disabled” in segregated schools where they never mix with ordinary students and are denied the educational and recreational opportunities available in regular schools.

The suit also claims that the schools for disabled students are poorly maintained and often lack grade-level instruction, certified teachers, electives, and any extracurricular activities. In addition, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal Constitution found that the numbers of African American students are disproportionate when compared to the state population.

Even more upsetting is the fact that disabled students are sometimes abused in those segregated schools. Some students have been restrained with leashes and placed in solitary confinement rooms for misbehavior. In 2004, a 13 year old boy hanged himself in such a room, which had no windows or furniture. He had been placed there 19 times over 29 days.

Although none of the situations described above existed in our schools, the teachers and I were not happy with the structure of our program for disabled students. We believed that there must be something better than having children drifting in and out of remedial classrooms all day long, not involved with anything, not belonging anywhere. If they were placed in regular classrooms we figured that they would at least have a chance at being regular kids. We decided it was time to make some significant changes.

Before designing anything new, we closed our special education rooms and put all our disabled students back in regular classrooms for the time being. We wanted to see what those students really needed in the way of instruction and support. Although our new program took a long time evolving, we were convinced that our special Ed students benefitted from the instruction, acceptance, content richness, and creative opportunities they found in the mainstream.

The special needs program we created grew out of a general philosophy that views all children as developing—yet always whole–human beings, whose cognitive, affective, moral, and physical sides must work together to make sense and value out of their experiences. Normal children learn by bringing a combination of faculties to bear on tasks they believe they can do and see as worth doing. We found no reason to adopt a different philosophy for students with disabilities, who are essentially the same as their ordinary peers except that they have more trouble getting all their parts to work in harmony. That is the all the more reason why they need coherence in curriculum and instruction.

Based on our beliefs we decided that our program would no longer be a separate, specialized system, but an array of small, purposeful variations in regular education provided for every child who needed them. We also decided to implement those variations in regular classrooms, and only distinguish disabled students from ordinary students to the extent required by law.

We would keep all grouping within classrooms pragmatic, socially acceptable, fluid, and unstigmatized. If, for example, we had to separate two children for their own good, we would keep the time and distance of such a separation as small as possible and consider it a necessity rather than a punishment.

We also decided to use our disability specialists in regular classrooms working with those students who needed extra help, whether or not they were classified as Disabled. We wanted everyone to see that what those teachers did was just plain good teaching, and also wanted specialists and regular teachers to learn from each other.


The specifics of our new Special Education program will be described in my next post two days from now. In the meantime, have a pleasant Labor Day.

 

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