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About 20 parents of pre-K children with disabilities voiced concerns about a new program to initiate inclusion at the early childhood level at a July 16 meeting attended by Superintendent Hardy Murphy, several other administrators and consultants Dr. Cassandra Cole and Cheryl Crosby.

Under the initiative, students participating in Services for Pre-Primary Age Children (SPPAC), a program for children with disabilities, would receive services in the same classrooms as children in the Head Start or Pre-K programs.

After a three-hour session, some parents appeared ready to give the program a chance. Others still had doubts.

The School Board has not discussed or formally approved the initiative. A memorandum to the Board, dated June 15, said, “District 65 will initiate inclusion at the early childhood and kindergarten levels…” and listed four training sessions that would be available for early childhood teachers before school started. The memo did not describe the initiative.

Parents Concerns

Parents with children in the SPPAC program were notified in late June that the District was considering the inclusion initiative. Parents were told if their children have an Individual Education Program (IEP), an IEP meeting may be reconvened to consider whether inclusion is appropriate for their child.

Almost all of the parents who spoke at the July 16 meeting said they supported inclusion, and spoke highly of teachers in the Head Start and SPPAC programs. They expressed concerns, though, that they were not told about the proposed move to inclusion until late June, that the administration did not seek their input to plan for the change, and that they may be asked to discuss and possibly change their children’s IEPs on the eve of the new school year. Some parents expressed concerns that they or others might be pressured into accepting changes to their children’s IEPs.

Parents also said there would only be minimal time for teacher training before the program is initiated, and that teachers would have minimal time to work with other teachers and engage in the co-planning necessary to effectively implement the program.

One parent said, “I love the idea of this. … But it seems like there is so little time. ‘How will this be done?’ is my big question.”

Richard Rykhus, a parent of a child in SPPAC, said, “There’s definitely a lot of interest and concern over this issue.” He said many parents were concerned “about the significant changes in the delivery of services.” In a letter to the Board, Mr. Rykhus said the inclusion program “will diminish the effectiveness of the existing programming for every student in the classroom and generate new problems for all students.”

Kiki Weaver, a parent of a child in the Head Start program and vice chair of the Head Start Parent Board, said Head Start parents were not given notice of the change. She complained about the lack of communication, and asked questions about how the inclusion initiative will impact children in the Head Start program.

The Inclusion Model

Margie Lenoir-Davis, assistant director of special services, said, “We are attempting to increase opportunities for [SPPAC] students to have the experience in a diverse classroom with their non-disabled peers and still have the supports necessary for them to succeed.” She added, “Previously, if students were worthy of special services, most often they were assigned to the SPPAC program,” a self-contained program.

In the pre-K inclusion classroom, Ms. Lenoir said, the District would use push-in services by special education teachers, co-teaching between general and special education teachers, and pull-out services. She said all necessary services will be available.

She said the District is planning to use about five separate classrooms for SPPAC students. “For students who require more intensive services, that option will remain available,” she said.

Dr. Murphy said staff would look at IEPs of students in SPPAC and identify students who are potential candidates for successful inclusion. Parents of those students will then be asked to participate in IEPs meeting to discuss participation in the inclusion program. He said if parents did not feel comfortable with the program, their children could continue receiving SPPAC services in a self-contained setting. “There will be no twisting of arms,” he said.

In an effort to address parents’ concerns that teachers will not be prepared to implement the program effectively in such a short time, Amy Small, early childhood facilitator, said Head Start teachers have been instructing students with IEPs for many years. “This is not new to Head Start at all. We’ve been doing it all along,” she said.

She said under the inclusion program a special education teacher will come into the classroom to assist the general education teacher. “It’s really a strong enhancement to what we’re already doing,” she said.

District administrators also said the District has offered several workshops for teachers and plan to provide additional training before school starts. Ms. Lenoir added that teachers will have 30 minutes each day to consult and plan together. Dr. Murphy said teachers will also have an hour and a half every other Thursday and seven half-days during the year to consult and plan together.

Dr. Murphy added that Project Choices, an organization that works with school districts to implement inclusionary classrooms, is working with the District to assist with the implementation. He said the District is also consulting with Dr. Cole.

When asked about the chances of success, Ms. Crosby, a representative of Project Choices, said, “I understand the frustration. But I also think there’s a lot of potential in this District.” She said teachers have had training on differentiated instruction, which is a good base for inclusion, and that, from what she has heard, the District has excellent staff. “From what I hear, I think it will work.”

She added, “Inclusion isn’t anything that’s brand new. It’s been around this country for a long time. Illinois is just very, very behind on this. It ranks 48th among the 50 states. … There’s immediacy to this in the State, not just in Evanston.”

Dr. Cole said if the District were implementing a full inclusion model where all SPPAC students were being assigned to inclusion classrooms, she would say the District was going about it in the wrong way. She said, though, “That’s not what I’m hearing. What I hear is there will still be options on that continuum of programs for SPPAC” and there will be “flexibility.”

She said one thing she felt to be critical was that there must be a structure for ongoing embedded training to take place in a very purposeful way – time for teachers to come together to talk, dialog, and have facilitated conversations to problem-solve as the initiative moves forward. She said she was assured that a structure was in place for embedded training. “That makes me feel better and good about the step,” she said.

In response to a question, Dr. Murphy said the measurement of success will include the District’s meeting a child’s IEP, and “parental satisfaction will be really important.” He added the consultants are developing criteria to use in evaluating the success of the initiative.

Next Steps

At the conclusion of the meeting, some parents sais they would trust the IEP teams recommendation on whether their child should participate in the inclusion program. Others, however, still had doubts and suggested the District start the initiative in January or September 2010 so teachers could receive additional training and have an opportunity to plan for the change, and the parents could provide input concerning the program. One parent said, “This is a trust issue.”

Dr. Murphy said it is important to include children with disabilities with their non-disabled peers so they may develop friendships, bonds and be exposed to a wide range of experiences. For parents of children with disabilities who want their child to be included in a Head Start class, he said, “I think we owe it to them to make it happen this year.’

Another information meeting about the initiative was scheduled for July 21 and still another for Aug. 11.