SEPARATION ANXIETY

Denice Rivera speaks from personal experience. After moving to Adams County, her daughter Tracy, who'd previously gone to Fletcher Miller, began attending school in a typical classroom. Rivera began noticing the difference right away. "They'd send her home with her jacket on backwards," she recalls. She also discovered that Tracy was not being allowed to succeed or fail on her own. "They were sending home homework with her name on it that clearly wasn't hers," says Rivera. "I told them I just wanted to see what my daughter could do.

"Tracy's self-confidence and her self-esteem went way down. Before, she'd try to do everything by herself. Now, she just didn't want to."

Fletcher Miller Elementary School could be any of the hundreds of low-slung schools built in the 1960s--until you get up close to the building. Near the front door, where the buses arrive, wheelchair ramps penetrate the parking lot, giving the area the look of a miniature airport concourse. As you enter the school, a sign on one of the doors reads "Wheelchair Entrance Only."

Inside the school are other subtle signs that it is not your average school. Each room has a sign over a button saying "Three buzzes = emergency." In the nurse's office is a medical crash cart like those found in hospitals.

The augmented communications classroom--for children who can't talk--is a wonder of ingenuity, technology and supervision. Mike, who can spell, types into his laptop computer, which is attached to a voice box. Dave, who can speak only vowels and who has cerebral palsy, uses a specially constructed picture book to communicate. Alf, who sits in a sort of Mad Max wheelchair, uses a pointer attached to a headband to type a series of numbers that translate to phrases spoken by a voice box hooked onto the back of the chair. Overseeing the six kids are one teacher, two aides and a psychologist.

Down the hall, in the carpeted gym, a physical therapist works with a student. Next door is a specially heated pool--one of only four in the district--used for additional physical and occupational therapy. Close by is the Activities of Daily Living classroom: five kids, two teachers. In the foyer are photos of kids enjoying the school prom, held last weekend.

Several miles to the north, off Ward Road just outside Wheat Ridge, is Margaret Walters School. A nonprofit institution run by the Jefferson County Community Center, Walters accepts severely handicapped public-school students--and public-school money--from several local districts.

Walters was started in 1964 by, among others, the ARC--one of the organizations that now wouldn't mind seeing it closed down. Despite what principal Ron Marquez describes as his personal commitment to inclusion for most kids, he is still convinced that there will always be a place for Walters.

As he strolls past the gym, for instance, he asks, "How many public schools have competition sports for kids with disabilities? They're always the managers or water boys. Our kids here compete." As at Fletcher Miller, most Walters classrooms are filled with five kids and two or three teachers and aides. In one classroom are five children, four of whom are bedridden with tubes leading into their stomachs. They must be turned occasionally to avoid muscle deterioration.

Elaine Angelo's six-year-old daughter, who has multiple congenital defects, attends Walters. While Angelo agrees that including disabled kids in regular classrooms could work for the vast majority of children, she says there are limits.

"I'm not sure I believe that all these children belong in regular classrooms," she says. "There are severe behavioral difficulties that teachers just can't deal with. Margaret Walters has kids who are bedridden. And you can't put a ward of children in a common classroom."

Although there is wide disagreement about whether separate classrooms and part-day, pull-out programs for children with disabilities should be considered inclusion, the fact is that in Colorado, and even in Jefferson County, the vast majority of disabled kids spend some part of their day alongside typical students. It is the 5 percent or so of the remaining handicapped children who don't that has ignited the recent battles over inclusion. The push to integrate this final segment of severely disabled kids has set off a sort of backlash.

The first salvo was fired late last year by the country's largest teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers. In December, AFT president Albert Shanker released a statement calling for a moratorium on the policy of inclusion for all students, which he referred to as "a recipe for educational disaster." Full inclusion, he said, "places children who cannot function into an environment which doesn't help them and often detracts from the education process for all students."

To many Colorado educators (most of whom are represented by the National Education Assocation), Shanker was just stating the obvious--that some kids can't make it in regular classrooms. In fact, while people who promote full inclusion don't like to admit it, Colorado is peppered with institutions that separate certain groups of kids from their peers.

The Colorado Department of Education, for example, has owned and operated a separate school for the deaf and the blind in Colorado Springs for more than one hundred years. And Meadowlark Day Treatment, like other day treatment programs, effectively is a separate school for kids with severe emotional difficulties who are so disruptive and, occasionally, violent that they must be removed from regular classrooms.

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