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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.

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.

Others who have backed away from inclusion have their own reasons for not wanting a headlong rush to integrate all handicapped students in regular schools. Parents of children who have been designated "talented and gifted"--and who increasingly have enjoyed their own pull-out enrichment programs--fear that the one-classroom-for-all concept of full inclusion will mean the end of their special attention.

On the other end of the spectrum, parents of kids with learning disabilities have nightmares of their children--many of whom have enjoyed teacher-to-student ratios of nearly one-to-one--being tossed into a typical public-school classroom with thirty kids and one teacher. Says Spinks, "There's an undercurrent of parents who have been pretty well taken care of over the years."

In between are the parents of typical children. Many of them fear that shoving a disabled child with numerous needs into a normal classroom will unavoidably pull a teacher's attention away from everyone else. It is a sentiment that many teachers don't dispute.

Colletta Shin, a teacher who last year retreated to Fletcher Miller after working in Chatfield High School's inclusion program, agrees that parents of typical kids may have reason to worry. "I was giving a lot more attention and time trying to meet the needs of the severely handicapped students, and other students were just sort of being lost," she recalls. "I felt I just couldn't handle both of them. I was feeling further and further behind."

Shin is hardly alone. Of the four special-ed teachers who started working at Chatfield's inclusion program eight years ago, she says that three have returned to regular classrooms. The other one--Shin--returned to Fletcher Miller so she could work exclusively with disabled kids in a segregated environment.

Even in districts that have made an all-out attempt to include every disabled child in classrooms with other students of their own age, success can be elusive. Over the past several years, for example, Thornton's Hunters Glen Elementary, in Adams County's District 12, has made its classrooms fully inclusive. Kari Cocozzella, who teaches third grade there, says the effort has been successful--with exceptions.

For example, one of her students last year was a child who she says had the mental capability of an eighteen-month-old infant. "It was hard to find things that were academically even close to appropriate for her," Cocozzella recalls. Worse, because the student acted like a two-year-old, "she had to be taken out of the classroom every fifteen minutes or so. It was very disruptive."

Cocozzella says including such difficult cases, which she has accomplished only with a large network of parent volunteers, could be helping the disabled kids, although there's no way for her to know for sure. And she adds that it probably is helpful for her typical students to learn tolerance.

But, she says, the one thing that's certain is that the policy is not sitting well with everyone. Last week the district approved a charter school for talented and gifted children, many of whose parents have confided to Cocozzella that they feel that including their kids alongside disabled children with such demanding needs is leaving their bright children dangling.

"We're trying to include all kids all day, and all kids are not the same," she says. "Some kids can't handle a full day in a classroom. I just don't think that it's cut and dried."

Outside, Denver is bathed in the May sunshine. Inside the Colorado Department of Education building, however, the windowless first-floor room hums with artificial lighting. Today the state board of education has convened to consider an appeal for a charter school that the Jefferson County Board of Education denied in March.

Martha Palamari, who is hoping to open the Mountain Charter School next fall, is explaining why Jefferson County needs a school that will stress full inclusion for everyone. "There are seven elementary schools in the mountain area," she points out, "and only one of them has inclusion."

She adds: "What we are proposing for this charter school is not available in the district. They are maybe available in bits and pieces." Jeffco's representative, an attorney, disagrees. "The educational concepts are good," she allows. But, she tells the board, "it doesn't provide an innovative program that is not available in the district elsewhere."

The state board shoots down Mountain Charter School's appeal--but not the notion of inclusion. "This charter is not ready for prime time," says Patricia Hayes, the board's vice-chairman. "I believe in inclusion. But I believe in doing it well, because it doesn't serve anyone by not doing it well."

Jefferson County administrators say they are moving toward becoming a more inclusive district. But their actions reflect the ambivalence that is felt toward the policy generally.

Early this year, for instance, parents of disabled children who'd been attending Stony Creek's well-regarded inclusion program learned that they would be required to return to their neighborhood schools next year. The notion of educating handicapped kids in their home schools plays on the heartstrings of those who believe in the concept of inclusion.

Yet many Stony Creek parents are worried that the district is setting itself up for failure. By spreading the special-ed support staff, now enjoyed exclusively by Stony Creek kids, over a larger area, the district, they contend, will end up pleasing no one. "This is being done much too fast," warns Karen Litz, executive director of the Association for Community Living. "There are not enough resources to do the program as it should be done."

Kathy Walters, a nurse, worries about what will happen to her son. Dustin, an eight-year-old with a learning disability, attended Fletcher Miller before arriving at Stony Creek two years ago. This year he has attended first grade with typical kids. The only time he leaves the classroom is for about one hour each day, for physical therapy and a special speech lab.

"He loves it," says Walters. "He feels more of a sense of belonging, feels more in tune with his classmates--that they're his friends."

Under Jeffco's new plan, however, next year Dustin is slated to attend Peiffer Elementary. So far, Walters says the principal has told parents that their disabled children will attend a typical homeroom but that they may have to be pulled out for special instruction with the other disabled kids.

"My concern," she says, "is that they will take Dustin out of his 100 percent inclusion program and put him in a self-contained program where he might get to spend part of his day with typical kids."

Ordinarily, kids who want to may petition to attend the school of their choice under Jeffco's open-enrollment policy. Not handicapped kids, however: Open enrollment doesn't apply to them.

Meanwhile, Fletcher Miller and Spinks have begun fighting back. Last month a local television station covered the parent protest against the Council on Exceptional Children. The reporter briefly mentioned that they were fighting against antiquated segregated schools like Fletcher Miller.

Furious, Spinks called the station and suggested a follow-up story about how essential his school is and how it represents just another choice for parents with disabled children in Jefferson County. At the end of the story, which aired two weeks ago, the television cameras caught a student who suddenly began having a seizure. After viewing the show, Spinks noted that it was a fine example of why Jeffco needed Fletcher Miller.

end of part 2


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