On Nov. 30 the District 65 School Board unanimously approved an “Inclusion Plan,” under which students with a disability will be integrated into the regular classroom. While the plan contains five guiding principles, ten goals and numerous strategies, details and a timeline for the plan’s implementation still need to be worked out by a District Leadership Team that is currently being formed.

The inclusion plan was initially presented to the Board on Nov. 16 (see Nov. 25 issue of the RoundTable). Much of the Board’s discussion on Nov. 30 focused on broad concepts, such as how the inclusion model would be staffed, what would happen to self-contained programs and to Park School, and the cost.

At an informational meeting held on Dec. 2 to explain the plan, several parents from Park School complained they were not part of the process, several parents expressed fears that Park School and self-contained instructional programs at other District 65 schools might be eliminated, several parents expressed concerns that there would not be adequate support services in the general education classrooms, and some said inclusion would not benefit, but be detrimental to, their children.

Dr. Cassandra Cole, Director of the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning at Indiana University, said at the Dec. 2 meeting that the inclusion plan was a starting point to get the District moving ahead with inclusion, and that she hoped it would be subject to continual revision. “It’s important to have monitoring, review, evaluation and revision,” she said.

Dr. Cole added that inclusion plans have been successfully implemented at other school districts. She and representatives from Project CHOICES, a Least Restrictive Environment Initiative of the Illinois State Board of Education, are consulting with District 65 on implementing the plan.

Rolling Up to First Grade

At the beginning of this school year, the District began implementing an inclusion model at the pre-k and kindergarten levels, with a plan to expand from the early years to upper grade levels in subsequent years. Assistant Superintendent Michael Robey said that about 40 students who traditionally would have been placed in diagnostic kindergarten classes, which he said were “restrictive environments,” were placed in general education kindergarten classes this year. Additional support services are provided in those classrooms. Only two students in the kindergarten class were not assigned to general education classes, he said.

Dr. Murphy said anecdotal evidence indicated that inclusion at these grade levels was working well, but at this stage no formal assessment has been made.

Next year, Dr. Murphy told the RoundTable, the plan is to expand the inclusion model from the kindergarten level up to the first grade level at all schools. At the end of this school year, kindergarten students who have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) will be assessed and their needs determined. The District will provide supports to meet the needs of those students at the first grade level, Dr. Murphy said. 

The District also implemented an inclusion model this year at all grade levels at Orrington School and for English Language Learning (ELL) students at Washington School. Dr. Murphy told the RoundTable that the District would apply what it has learned at those schools in expanding the inclusion plan at other schools.

Self-Contained Classrooms and Park School

Board member Katie Bailey asked what a vote in favor of the plan would mean for Park School, a school that has about 35 students at the pre-k through eighth-grade levels and that focuses on the needs of students who have learning and/or physical challenges.

Dr. Murphy broadened the question, saying the inclusion plan addressed not only Park School, but also cluster programs and self-contained instructional programs for students with a disability.

 “We have to start thinking about ‘What does it mean to allocate our resources and services so that we can address the needs of students without necessarily pulling them out and putting them in segregated classrooms?’” Dr. Murphy said. “That’s what you’re voting for. Now is that something that’s going to happen tomorrow? Probably not. Is that something that’s going to require a great deal of capacity building across the District? Absolutely it is. What you’re voting for is the ideal. And the ideal is that we’ll be able to serve students [with a disability] in the general education classroom, either all of the time or part of the time, with supports, and do so closer to their home or neighborhood school.”

At the Dec. 2 informational meeting, Dr. Murphy addressed the issue of self-contained classrooms, which he said serve students with emotional problems, Asperger’s syndrome and other disabilities. He said the challenge was, “Can we create situations where those children can spend all, most or some of their time in classrooms with supports with teachers and other children, so that the experience we see on many of the playgrounds can be replicated in the classroom, so they have experience with their peers?”

Margie Lenoir Davis, interim director of special services education for the District, said, “It is our desire to immensely build the capacity within our individual buildings [to serve students with a disability in the general education classroom], with the clusters to support the needs of a variety of students … When we have that capacity, we decrease the need to have instructional or self-contained programs for students on a full-time basis, but we will still have a continuum of services.”

While there will be an effort to place more students with disabilities in the general education classrooms (and it has been done this year at the kindergarten level, except for two students), it appears that self-contained classrooms will not be completely eliminated.

Dr. Murphy said the District would educate students with a disability “in cluster settings if in fact they have the kinds of disabilities where inclusion in a general education classroom does not provide a meaningful and beneficial experience for them or their peers.”

Dr. Cole added, “We never had a conversation of eliminating self-contained classrooms. …I don’t think it’s fair to say we’re going to eliminate all self-contained programs…that would be irresponsible.”

As for Park School, Dr. Murphy said next year the District would take a closer look at pre-k and kindergarten students who are possible candidates for Park School to determine whether their needs can be met in other schools in the District. He said the District would put a decision-making process in place “where we actively try to find spots where, with supports, those students can benefit from inclusion in some of our neighborhood or attendance area schools. … And it could mean that at least for District students, fewer of those students will be entering Park School.”

He said, though, there would not be an “en masse” decision made with respect to Park School, but that decisions would be made on an individual basis for each student. He told Park School parents at the Dec. 2 meeting, “If there’s a way to replicate those services and the experiences that you’re having at Park School across the District, including the life skills training, … then we have to undergo the plan to make sure that that occurs.”

 He said this did not mean that children would be placed in general education classes, but that they might be educated in cluster settings in the same building with their age-peers.

Dr. Cole sought to reassure Park School parents on Dec. 2, “We’re not saying we’re going to move students from Park into general education classrooms. What we are thinking about is we might move students from Park over time into a school into what we call a “cluster program,” where students will stay together and staff from Park would all be serving those students.’”

Under the inclusion plan, Park School will not be the same in the future as it is today. “It [the inclusion plan] absolutely means that in the future there would at least be a transformation where we won’t need all the classrooms we have at Park School,” said Dr. Murphy at the Board’s meeting.

When asked by a parent if there was a plan to close Park School sometime in the future, Dr. Murphy said there would be a “transformation” over time. He said, “Over time, will Park School look like it does now, with all the classes, all of the staff, all of the programs, all of the students? No. The intent of this plan is to distribute their experience with the appropriate supports at different schools throughout the District.”

Dr. Murphy added that he did not think Park School would be eliminated any time soon. He also said that on a long term basis “some programming” may remain at Park School.

At the end of the Dec. 2 informational meeting, parents appeared to remain concerned that Park School as they know it would not be the same. Some were concerned that the cluster of services currently provided at Park School could not be replicated elsewhere. Some challenged the premise that inclusion would be beneficial for their children.

Similarly, one parent with a child in a self-contained instructional classroom expressed concerns about inclusion. On the other hand, one parent who said her child was benefiting as a result of the inclusion program at the kindergarten level this year said she was concerned about whether teachers would have adequate supports at the first grade level next year.

Dr. Murphy told parents that the supports necessary to meet their children’s needs would be in place. He said, “What we’re talking about has been done in other places. What we’re trying to do, we know has been done successfully in other places.”

He said the purpose of the inclusion plan was to benefit students. “The closer that children are to the regular classroom, the more access they have to the general education curriculum and to experience with their peers, the greater their chances are of leading successful and ‘normal lives,’” he said.

Reallocating Staff

The District is spending about $17.4 million on special education services this year, according to an Oct. 6 memo prepared by Kathy Zalewski, comptroller for the District.

Dr. Cole said that District 65 was “resource rich,” and it could reallocate its current resources to implement the inclusion plan.

 Dr. Murphy said the plan is to reallocate teachers and staff currently serving students with a disability, so the District can address their needs in the general education classroom. He also said that part of the inclusion process is to train general education teachers so they can more effectively serve the needs of students with IEPs in the general education classroom so that “maybe we’re able to do more with those students in the general education classrooms without having to have the additional teacher resources in there.”

A parent from Lincoln School espressed concern about the level of support services. “It doesn’t sound like you’re making enough provision to provide professional support for these kids,” she said. “I don’t understand how you’re not planning on a co-teaching model … for one class per grade. I don’t understand how it’s going to be an appropriate inclusion system if you don’t have a professional in the classroom, if you don’t have an aide.

 “You can’t expect a general education teacher to have four special needs kids in a classroom and really appropriately cater to the general education kids and the special education kids without either a special education teacher or an aide, and it doesn’t sound like you’re making provision for that,” she continued.

Dr. Murphy said at the end of each year, each student would be assessed, and the IEP team would determine what supports would be required for the next year. “There seems to be a concern that everyone thinks you need to keep rolling this co-teaching up [to upper grade levels] in succeeding years,” he said. “The point I’m making is that for some children that may be true and for others it may not.”

He added that if the District needed to roll up a co-teacher model to every grade level each year, “there’s no way that we’re going to be able to do it, because it will break the back of the District financially.”

One parent at the Dec. 2 meeting said it appeared there was some optimism that children will not need co-teaching or other supports in the classroom as they moved to upper grade levels. She said the need for co-teaching and aides may increase rather than decrease because some children’s needs increase as they get older.

Jean Luft, president of the District Educators Council (the teachers union), said in prepared statement, “One area of great concern to teachers is adequate staffing and support. Teachers and support staff need to have manageable workloads and time for collaboration, planning and consultation so every child in District 65 has access to a high quality education.”

The Cost

Dr. Murphy said he could not say whether or not there would be an incremental cost associated with implementing the inclusion plan. He said the District would assess its existing resources in special education and determine whether it could shift those resources to implement the inclusion plan without incurring additional expenses. He said this would be determined in the normal budgeting process during February through April.

He said, though, “Effective implementation of the plan is not predicated on an infusion of a significant amount of new resources and expenditures.” Dr. Cole similarly said, “The experience is not that it necessarily costs a lot more” to implement an inclusion plan.

Richard Rykhus, a parent of a pre-K student in the inclusion plan this year, raised a concern about the financing. He said, “Where I get scared … is around the finances, because I understand that the District has a lot of competing needs and we have to fulfill all of them, and so as I think about how are we going to make sure there are aides and the right co-teaching models and that the IEPs are still written with the same amount of rigor and that we get great teachers …, that’s where I get concerned. When are we going to see those details, which I understand will be coming, to make sure that the model can be supported financially?”

The Leadership Team

A District leadership team is being formed that will develop a plan with timelines for “rolling out” inclusion for the 2010-11 school year, including a plan for professional development. The leadership team will also develop a fairly specific measurement component, said Dr. Cole.

Mr. Rykhus encouraged the Board to adopt quantifiable measures of success, without which, he said, “we cannot know how well inclusion has worked.”

Ms. Luft said differentiated professional development was critical. “DEC is also requesting professional development that is differentiated and offers a wide variety of training options for teachers and staff. Training, along with visiting and consulting with other school districts that have a continuum of options for the delivery of special services, is needed before any plan can be successfully developed and implemented,” she said.

Board member Tracy Quattrocki, who will serve on the District’s leadership team, said she hoped the plan would become “much more concrete” over the next six months, “so we don’t feel stuck at this high level and not knowing what will happen at individual schools next year.” She also suggested that parents of children in the pre-k and kindergarten inclusion plan this year be surveyed to learn from that experience.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...