SEPARATION ANXIETY

part 2 of 2
It is a Wednesday evening at the Stony Creek Elementary School library, in southern Jefferson County, and about twenty parents have gathered to discuss what to do about the district's plan to splinter Stony Creek's much-praised inclusion program. It is, they agree, just another example of Jeffco's insensitivity to full inclusion.

There is a comfortable feeling of common purpose and mutual enemies--until Kathi Beebe stands up. "My child is in a self-contained classroom" exclusively for disabled children, she says. "And I don't want him to leave."

Derrick Beebe's disability was not immediately apparent. "We were clueless," Kathi Beebe concedes. "He did great in preschool. And when we sent him to kindergarten he did exceptionally well. But one day he came home from first grade and told me: `I don't get it. I just don't get it. The other kids get it, and I don't.'

"In first and second grades, Derrick was in a regular classroom, except he was pulled out for a perceptual-communication lab. But the school didn't have the proper support staff. The kids constantly taunted and teased Derrick--you know, `You're going to the special class.' He just couldn't function on the same level as the other kids.

"In the regular class, he just sat there twiddling his thumbs. The class had one regular-ed teacher and thirty kids. We tried to work out a system where Derrick would try to signal the teacher if he needed extra help--he'd touch his finger to his nose--but it still didn't work."

In the spring term of second grade, in 1992, Derrick was reassesed. The school and his parents determined that he would learn best in a self-contained lab along with kids with similar disabilities. Unlike the regular classroom, it had one teacher and two aides for twelve kids.

In June 1992 the Beebes moved from the neighborhood where Kathi and her husband both had grown up so they could be closer to the school, Dutch Creek Elementary, and its special classroom. It is a decision that Kathi Beebe says she has never regretted.

"The district wants to send these kids back to their home schools, where they're left dangling, and call it `inclusion,'" she says. "They may want inclusion. But it doesn't work for everyone. I don't know if Derrick is ready for that--he says he's not. He says now he's getting smarter every day. I know what he's got now works, and I don't want to go backward."

All sides of the inclusion debate can trot out statistics showing either clear benefits or murky results. There is no consensus about whether pouring disabled kids into regular classrooms works well. As is the case with many education programs, the stats tend to prove what their authors want them to.

"We have a real hard time with full inclusion," says Liz Hesse, past president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Colorado, which opposes across-the-board inclusion. "Our kids just don't function without special attention. And it's contrary to research and our experience that it's beneficial."

On the other hand, the state education department's McNulty asserts there is clear evidence from national studies that inclusion is beneficial to handicapped kids and the typical kids who learn alongside them. And Colorow principal Jerry Watson says he has just completed a three-year study showing the same. "The one piece of data that stands out more than any other is the gains of special-ed students," he says.

One reason for the fuzzy data is that examples of true inclusion, as envisioned by purists, are few and far between. "If you were to go to other public-school districts--Denver, Littleton, wherever--there isn't full inclusion going on," says Ron Marquez, who for the past thirteen years has been the principal of Margaret Walters School, which accepts only severely retarded students. "There's maybe one or two kids with disabilities in classrooms. But there's no full inclusion."

Fletcher Miller principal Spinks confides that he's been called on to rescue handicapped kids who didn't fit into some of Jeffco's self-heralded inclusion programs with typical students. Even Watson concedes that he has been forced to move some disabled kids from Colorow's fully inclusive program and place them into separate classrooms.

Another reason for the conflicting stories is that too frequently proponents and critics aren't even having the same conversation when the topic of inclusion pops up. For most parents of typical kids, school is still very much about multiplication tables, spelling and vocabulary. For parents of disabled kids, however, talk tends to center more on seating charts and social acceptance.

"I have to pick my goals very carefully," says Janine Johnson, who moved to Littleton so that her daughter, Jenni, who is mildly retarded, wouldn't have to go to Jefferson County schools. "The goal for Jenni was not to learn where Bosnia was but for her to get along with her peers."

Finally, the debate over whether inclusion works simply reflects the sheer variety of people shoehorned into special education. With more than a dozen labels and almost uncountable variations of degree of disability, it's hardly surprising that there is wide disagreement about inclusion among parents of handicapped children. Many parents of kids with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder or deafness, for example, are convinced that separate classrooms for kids with special needs only makes sense.

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