As the School District 65 Inclusion Plan moves forward, it’s important that the residents of Evanston become aware of a piece of the plan that could have devastating consequences for our most vulnerable children: the students who attend Park School. These children are 3-21 years old and have severe and profound developmental disabilities. Many can’t speak, can’t walk, can’t feed themselves, can’t toilet independently, and have profound cognitive delays. They receive highly specialized services, using specialized equipment, from trained professionals at Park School. These students come from District 65 as well as other school districts that pay their tuition to attend Park.

Despite the vehement pleas of Park families, the Administration has decided to pursue an aggressive policy of discontinuing Park School placement for preschool and kindergarten students with severe developmental disabilities beginning in fall 2010. Instead they intend to put them in small, self-contained classrooms in select general education schools. I have grave concerns about this based on the feelings and experiences that Park parents have shared with me and have expressed in public forums.

I participated on the Inclusion Planning Committee that created the Inclusion Plan for District 65. It was a collaborative process that generated a good direction for the District. However, had I understood the implications for Park School, I would have recommended that this issue be removed from the table. The goal as stated in the plan is to “Review inclusion for Park School and include Park students in implementation timeline.” I assumed “review” meant evaluate or consider, not initiate. And the “implementation timeline” was supposed to be developed by the “Leadership Team” that was charged with this responsibility, yet the Administration is moving ahead without their input. The School Board voted to approve the Inclusion Plan on Nov. 30. I don’t believe they understood the implications either.

The Administration has asserted that they do not intend to close Park. However, the inclusion plan will effectively result in its closure. Parents were told that this is just a plan, and therefore they should not be concerned. This plan drives decision-making and actions toward predetermined outcomes. Moving preschool and kindergarten students into inclusive settings will effectively initiate a phasing-out of Park. Incoming families may not even know that this option is no longer available. The Administration asserts that they will make placement determinations in the context of Individual Education Program (IEP) meetings. However, policy decisions are being made and plans are moving forward prior to convening those IEP meetings.

In order to “build capacity” to serve severely disabled students in general education settings, resources would have to be assigned in advance. I fear that in an effort to serve these children in “cluster sites,” the District will have to take staff and equipment from Park. Otherwise this move will be extremely costly. Making our schools accessible and safe for physically disabled students is an additional financial concern.

The aim of inclusion is to expand opportunities and increase options; it should not replace programs that are serving children well. The District could look for ways to bring inclusive social interactions to Park. Typically developing kids from nearby Washington and Nichols schools, as well as ETHS, are already involved in activities there and this could be increased in creative ways. Park students do not have to be moved out of a safe environment and into general education schools to broaden their inclusive opportunities. In addition, parents have developed a community of support with one another. Parents trust the staff at Park to understand and care for their children. Scattering them across the District would destroy that community.

These families have endured difficult and painful journeys in their efforts to find a safe and loving place for their children. Many of them have tried inclusion or self-contained programs in general education schools already. Inclusion failed to address their children’s needs and therefore they were placed at Park. It is irresponsible to put these children, or any others, at risk again.

I believe strongly in inclusion for children when appropriate, but I do not believe this aspect of the inclusion plan makes sense. Dr. Cassandra Cole, the District’s Inclusion Consultant, has advised that inclusion can only be successful if the community embraces it as a “shared value.” Park parents value Park School. The Administration should not be permitted to dismantle this exceptional program in the service of a philosophy.

If District 65 wants to positively transform the lives of disabled children they must preserve and treasure the existence of Park School. Park School is a beacon in a dark landscape. We should be proud to have it in our community and do everything we can to protect it. These families need our support. Please tell the School Board to take action and insist that the Administration halt this process.