At the School Board’s June 15 meeting, administrators presented a plan to implement “full inclusion” of students with a disability into the general classroom at the kindergarten level. Assistant Superintendent Michael Robey said the administration felt it was important to include students “in the early years,” adding, “We have tried to slowly integrate students and we felt that model was not successful.”

The District has implemented a “highly successful” inclusion model at the kindergarten level at Dewey school, Mr. Robey said, and the District-wide kindergarten inclusion model will follow either the structure of the Dewey model or a more richly staffed model when appropriate. At Dewey, a special education teacher co-taught in the classroom for one-half the day, and a teacher’s assistant was available in the classroom the entire day.

If a student with a disability needs a more restrictive environment, a self-contained kindergarten classroom will be available at Dawes.

The District also plans to implement a full inclusion model on a pilot basis for grades K-5 at Orrington School this fall, and to include students with a disability in the regular classroom across the District “on a more regular basis when possible and appropriate,” said Mr. Robey. The District will transition other programs for students with a disability with a goal of providing continuity of services for the students, preserving peer group affiliations when possible, and maintaining attendance area priorities whenever possible.

These changes would address some of the recommendations made by Dr. Cassandra Cole in a follow-up report on special education services to the Board on May 18.

While endorsing the District’s efforts to expand inclusion, eight persons raised concerns about the speed at which the District was implementing the inclusion model. Concerns were also raised about the District’s program for students with mental illness.

Preparation for Full Inclusion

At the June 15 Board meeting, Dorothy Millard, president of the District 65 Educators Council, said teachers were informed about the changes in the last two weeks of school, and the timing did not allow for conversation, planning and professional development. “Teachers are supportive of inclusion for students,” she said, but they “have many concerns,’ including what is the plan, how many support staff will be available, and will training be provided.

Cari Levin, founding director of Evanston Citizens for Appropriate Special Education (CASE), said, “Inclusion is easy to do wrong and it is better not to do it until an adequate foundation has been established, including disability awareness education for parents and students, and training for teachers. I can’t imagine how you will accomplish this over the summer.”

Six other persons, including three kindergarten teachers raised similar concerns. In the past month, several parents have raised concerns that their children were assigned to a self-contained classroom in an IEP meeting and that a few weeks later they were told their children would be included in a regular classroom with supports.

Board member Tracy Quattrocki said she had previously expressed concerns to administrators that there was not enough time for teacher training and communication. “I was tremendously dismayed by the public commentary that there are so many teachers who feel that they weren’t effectively communicated with and that it’s being rushed through, and I do feel we need some response to that.” She said the District needed to assure teachers “it will happen effectively” or perhaps wait a year to implement the change.

Superintendent Hardy Murphy said, “I think it’s wrong to treat the reaction we’ve seen tonight as an indication that there’s this widespread kind of resistance that’s occurring out there.” Addressing a parent’s question as to why his child was assigned a month ago to a self-contained classroom and two weeks later to a regular classroom, Dr. Murphy said, “We decided we can successfully provide the resources and supports for his child to be successful in a general education classroom.”

“No one has told me this won’t work,” said Mr. Robey. “We have a number of teachers who are extremely excited about this opportunity and what it means for kids. …We are committing the resources to make sure this is successful.” He added that implementing the program would move about 20 students from a self-contained classroom to a regular classroom, and impact five classrooms and eleven teachers.

Geneva Oatman, director of special services, said professional training was scheduled for the teachers before school begins and that the District was working with Project Choices to assist in the implementation. Project Choices, she said, has 20 years of experience in helping school districts implement inclusionary classrooms.

Board members appeared to acquiesce in the change. Board member Bonnie Lockhart said almost all the speakers applauded the move to inclusion and the changes respond to what “parents have been asking for. … I think we need to try this even though it may not have been rolled out in the way everybody is happy with.”

Ms. Oatman said the District was meeting with parents whose children may need a change to an IEP and hoped to complete that process by July 1.

Jean Luft, president-elect of DEC, asked that the administration inform teachers what role they will be playing and whether professional development will be included in the Fall.

Students with a Mental Illness

Ms. Oatman said the District was planning a school-based model to serve middle-school students with an emotional disturbance at their attendance area school. The students will be served in cross-categorical classrooms with support of behavior management specialists and draw from the Boys Town Educational Model.

Ms. Levin she was dismayed to see the focus would be behavioral, which she said would not address the needs of children with a mental illness. “There is a significant need for a truly therapeutic program for children with emotional disabilities,” she said. She suggested the District employ dedicated psychology consultants who are trained in therapeutic interventions.

Dr. Murphy said Ms. Levin’s points “are worth consideration” and suggested they be considered during the next school year.