As special education population has grown, so has incorporation in regular classrooms
Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal - 6/16/2019
Jun. 16--TUPELO -- Jack Martin, 12, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age three and was non-verbal until he was five years old. When he entered school, he started out in a self-contained special education classroom, later spending about half the school day in a regular classroom.
Jack now spends approximately 80 percent of his time in regular classrooms. His mother, Lisa, said the Martin family has been fortunate Jack is now well-adjusted in a regular classroom, and his special education teachers and an assistant teacher have provided the right support for his inclusion in a regular class.
"A lot of the time, it is difficult to tell what that is; autism is such a unique form of disability because everybody is so different and everybody is on different parts of that spectrum, so that is probably the most frustrating part for an autism parent when navigating the education system," Lisa Martin said.
Special education is a growing demographic in schools across the nation, and these students are spending more time than ever before in regular classrooms. Nearby southern states Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas have the highest growth rates of this demographic. In Mississippi, the group has seen a modest but steady growth rate over the last four years.
Students with special needs in inclusion classrooms spend a portion of the day in a regular classroom. Self-contained classrooms -- filled only with other special education students -- can be beneficial for students who require more one-on-one time with teachers or need additional help, but depending on the specific challenges of the student, this also can impede opportunities to learn social skills.
Districts are changing their philosophies on special education, emphasizing inclusion more than ever. Mississippi is one of five states that committed earlier this year to boosting special education student achievement through training administrators. But specialists, parents and educators all say that it starts with the right support in the classroom.
Savannah Tucker is a special education teacher at King Early Childhood Education Center in Tupelo. Tucker said expectations for general education students and students with special needs are more similar than ever before.
Tucker said it has been beneficial to have administrative leadership that supports an environment where all students get the same school experiences.
"Ms. (Haley) Stewart (the school's principal) does a fantastic job encouraging our (special education) classes to be involved with specials time, which is our music, P.E. and computer lab, and we are paired with a class that has the general education students for recess," Tucker said. "Our class also goes on field trips with them and we have our Beetastic assemblies, so we're moving in a direction where all students are included in everything.
"As a special educator, that's a dream come true in so many ways."
Challenges for students
Students with special needs face many challenges in classrooms. Depending on specific needs, such students may have difficulties communicating verbally or learning. Some students may have serious psychological, behavioral or physical challenges that hinder proficiency in the classroom.
Dr. Sheila Williamson is a clinical psychologist and clinical director at The Autism Center of North Mississippi in Tupelo. The Autism Center provides behavioral service support and training for school districts throughout north Mississippi.
Williamson said the center mostly offered individual therapy before, but it now offers most therapy in a group setting in a large room and aims to prepare clients for real-world scenarios.
Proponents of inclusion say such classroom settings can improve academic and social success rates for students with special needs. The Autism Center is moving toward providing more 'social navigation' opportunities to help clients learn to tolerate an inclusion environment.
The Center has created mock specials classes, where clients with special needs can practice taking mock art, physical education, library and music classes in an inclusion setting that mimics a regular class.
"It's about knowing your space and learning those rules," Williamson said.
Williamson said specials classes provide an opportunity for students with special needs to experience an unstructured environment that will prepare them for transitioning from self-contained to inclusion classes.
"The best part of inclusion is it really helps kids reach their full potential," Williamson said. "Inclusion done right is really providing the right support so that kids can access what their typical peers can access."
Helping students open up
Lisa Martin has heard concerns from other parents of special needs children about the regular classroom environment.
"When they first told me they were going to put (Jack) in a mainstream class more, even though that was something that I should have been proud of -- which I was -- I was very fearful," Martin said.
Martin said she has heard parents express concerns that in a regular classroom, their special needs child may be vulnerable to bullying, may not thrive, or may not be able to keep up with the work. Alternately, she has heard some parents say they wished their child could experience a regular classroom.
"I can see both sides of that argument; of wanting your child to succeed and wanting to push them to their limits, but you also have to acknowledge that they do have limits to some degree, and I think the most important thing is just wanting the child to be safe but also finding the right circumstances and environment for them to succeed as best they can," Martin said.
Martin said Jack did not make many social connections with other students in self-contained classes, but when he transitioned into a general classroom for most of the day, things changed.
"He has friends that he can name by name now and that had not happened until this last year. In fifth grade at Pierce Street, he actually came home and talked about the other kids by name, and that was a huge deal for us, I absolutely believe this was because of more time spent in a regular classroom environment," Martin said.
"He just flourished."
When schools, districts and teachers are graded and receive state and federal funding based on testing results, this can put additional pressure and anxiety on educators who teach inclusion classes. Teachers may experience worries such as, will special needs students disrupt their typical learner classmates? Will special needs students' grades on standardized tests bring class and school grades down?
In such a results-driven environment, providing high-quality individualized support for special needs students can be a challenge.
"The biggest impact on the accessibility of inclusive settings is the standardized testing model," Williamson said.
Gwendolyn Williams is chair of the Department of Special Education at Jackson State University and said a one-size-fits-all accountability model does this group no favors.
In 2002, No Child Left Behind was implemented because certain groups of children were not included in testing and there was no real accountability for student achievement. The law required students in grades three through eight, including those with special needs, to be tested every year in reading and math and to achieve proficiency within 12 years.
"It had a good intent; its intent was to provide federal oversight over accountability," Williams said.
Children do not start at the same point however, and when accountability measures are the same for every student, some children do get left behind, Williams said.
"The emphasis shifted to teachers worrying about whether their children were going to make annual yearly performances measured by standardized tests and whether they were going to be held accountable, would that impact their raises or merit pay, or did schools receive passing or failing grades based on these different groups of children being included in the accountability standards and measures," Williams said.
When the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed into law in 2015, effectively replacing No Child Left Behind, this gave states and therefore school districts more autonomy over the types of measures they could use to demonstrate accountability for student progress.
Special education programs today are more individualized and measurements take into account the types of individual services provided. But there is still a disconnect between reasonable expectations for independence and academic success, and a student's abilities and support needs.
Because each special education student has an individual set of challenges and support needs, structuring coursework around passing tests while having sufficient support in the classroom can be a challenge.
Teacher shortages mean there fewer qualified individuals to meet the needs of these students. There are currently 5,411 special education instructors in Mississippi and the most recent count of students with disabilities six through 21 years old served in Mississippi public schools was 60,797.
"We are not supposed to provide services based on what is available, we are supposed to provide services based on what children need," Williams said. "But the reality is that sometimes we provide those services based on what we have."
For Jack Martin, the only assistance he needs in a regular classroom today is accommodations for taking tests, particularly in math. His mother, Lisa, said although math and science are difficult subjects for Jack, her son is a gifted reader and the family just found out he will attend an advanced reading class in middle school.
"It all depends on what the child is capable of and what their limitations are, I think it really comes down to just whatever is best for your kids," Martin said.
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