Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!

At the District 65 School Board meeting on Feb. 16, fourteen parents of children with a disability urged the Board to redefine and clarify what is meant by “inclusion” under the District’s Inclusion Plan that was adopted by the Board on Nov. 30, 2009. They are concerned that the District, in an effort to include students with a disability, will eliminate self-contained programs and Park School as options for children with severe disabilities.

In a letter presented to the Board, the 14 parents said the discussion should shift from “we are implementing inclusion” to “we are offering inclusive programming.” They say this shift would allow professionals on IEP teams more flexibility in recommending an Individual Education Program that fits the needs of an individual child, as opposed to an ideology.

To implement the Inclusion Plan, District 65 administrators have said they intend to build the capacity to serve students with a disability in the general education classroom, with supports. “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 have a continuum of services,” Margie Lenoir-Davis, interim director of special services education for the District, told Board members in December.

Superintendent Hardy Murphy told Board members in December that the ideal under the inclusion plan would be to serve students with a disability in the general education classroom, either all of the time or part of the time, with supports. He said, though, that if a student has the kinds of disabilities where inclusion in a general education classroom does not provide a meaningful and beneficial experience, the student may be assigned to a “cluster” setting or to Park School. Decisions would be made by an IEP team on an individual basis for each student with a disability, he said.

Parents are nonetheless concerned. Cari Levin, founding director of Evanston Citizens for Appropriate Special Education (CASE), expressed concern at the Board’s Feb. 16 meeting that the District’s consultant has indicated that Park School should not exist, that the District plans to discontinue self-contained classrooms for preschoolers and kindergartners, that it plans to reduce the number of full-time co-taught classrooms, and that it plans to place severely disabled kindergartners in “cluster sites” rather than Park School.

She added that while the District says it will make decisions based on child’s individual needs, the District’s inclusion philosophy “is constraining the decision-making of IEP teams who intimately understand the needs of individual children.” She asked, “Can you support your staff if they determine that a child needs something other than full inclusion?”

Ms. Levin and other parents urged the District to maintain a full continuum of services for children with disabilities. The parents say in their letter to the Board, “We can have self-contained programs, programs in free-standing buildings, and private school programs available for children, and at the same time provide them with high quality inclusive programming. We don’t have to eliminate these options in order to provide children with inclusive experiences.”

“While inclusion for all children may seem like a noble and idealistic goal, it is neither realistic for some children nor authorized by law,” said Rachael Gross, an Orrington parent and CASE member. “For some children in our District, inclusion is appropriate. For others, like some of those discussed tonight, Park School and self-contained options remain critical.”

Jill Calian, a Dewey parent and special education liaison for Dewey, said, “My concern is that the District is moving too quickly toward inclusion, that it is poised to dismantle proven programs and shift children with special needs into general education settings without adequate support.”

Many parents who spoke said Park School or a self-contained classroom was the most appropriate setting for their children. They questioned how their children could receive appropriate services in another setting.

Jean Luft, president of the District Educators Council (the teachers’ union), also supported keeping self-contained programs and Park School as options. “Any District plan must have a full continuum of services that includes self-contained classrooms and Park School,” she said.

In addressing Board comments made in an earlier meeting that there was no decision to close Park School, Barry Minerof, a Park School parent, said, “There may be no plan to close Park School, but this plan, if continued, will have that result nonetheless.”

Ms. Levin told the RoundTable that the Board should adopt a resolution or adopt a policy that makes clear that Park School and self-contained programs remain as viable options and that IEP teams should consider those as viable options in deciding on the most appropriate program placement for a child. She added, “I believe parents and staff will not trust the administration without this action from the Board.”