School District 65’s Leadership Team, which is overseeing the implementation of the District’s Inclusion Plan, has been meeting on a regular basis to discuss details for the plan’s implementation. The District implemented inclusion at the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten grade levels and at Orrington School this year. The District plans to roll up its inclusion efforts next year to the first grade level at all schools.

The Leadership Team includes administrators, teachers, parents and two School Board members. At its March 24 meeting, the Leadership Team discussed a professional development plan, an evaluation plan, and the results of a teachers’ attitude survey. Two Board members reported on a recent visit to a school in Bloomington, Ind., where inclusion has been in place since 1983.

The Attitudinal Survey of Teachers

About 500 teachers, including general education, special education and art teachers, responded to 33 questions in a survey that focused on attitudes with respect to students who had “mild disabilities.” No questions were asked with respect to students who had “severe disabilities.”

At the March 24 meeting, Dr. Cassandra Cole, a consultant to District 65, highlighted responses to three of the survey questions: 86% of the teachers said they thought students with mild disabilities benefited from inclusion; 61% said they thought students with mild disabilities adjust well when placed in the general education classroom; and 77% said general education peers are accepting of students with mild disabilities.

She said these were powerful statements that indicated teachers and students had “core beliefs” supporting inclusion.

While core beliefs supported inclusion, responses to a number of other questions raise concerns: 60% of the teachers said they thought there were insufficient resources available for inclusion of students with disabilities to succeed; 51% thought students with mild disabilities require more attention and assistance than general education can provide; 44% thought “this school” was not prepared to implement inclusion for students with mild disabilities; 40% thought general education teachers lacked the instructional skills to teach students with mild disabilities.

Mike Robey said philosophically most teachers are on board with inclusion, but they are concerned about their ability or the District’s ability to do this.

Jean Luft, president of the District Educators Council (the teachers’ union), said teachers struggled with what was meant by the term “mild disabilities,” a term that was not defined in the survey. She added it would have been helpful to have included questions with respect to students who had “severe disabilities.”

Dr. Cole said the survey provided baseline data, and teacher’s attitudes would be tracked over time.

Professional Development

The professional development plan lists many workshops, training sessions and conferences. Dr. Cole said the plan was designed to present many opportunities for teachers and principals, rather than providing a one-size-fits-all approach. She said the list of professional development activities was cohesive, and it was intended to be flexible.

Ms. Luft said most teachers were familiar teaching students with mild disabilities, but were not as familiar with students with severe disabilities. She thought it would benefit all teachers to attend workshops on addressing the needs of students with severe disabilities.

Evaluation of Inclusion

Dr. Cole presented a chart summarizing the ways the District will evaluate the inclusion program implemented this year. She said the inclusion program will be evaluated from four different perspectives.

First, student achievement will be evaluated using ISAT scores and other assessments that are currently being used by the District. Dr. Murphy said measuring whether students are meeting the goals in their Individual Education Programs and the time taken to meet those goals, will also be built into the assessment system.

Second, teachers’ and parents’ attitudes towards inclusion and the inclusion program will be obtained in surveys, and additional information will be obtained from teachers in staff meetings. Board member Katie Bailey suggested that the survey should include not only parents of students with a disability, but parents of all students. Dr. Murphy agreed that it would be important to obtain the views of all parents and to see how views change over time.

Third, students’ perceptions of inclusion will be obtained through a simple survey given by classroom teachers, and student views would also be collected during staff meetings. Dr. Cole said, “If you want to find out what’s really happening, ask the kids.”

Fourth, leadership will be assessed through a staff attitudinal survey and principal focus groups. Leadership will also be assessed by tracking where students with a disability are being served. Dr. Murphy said he would like to see more students with a disability being educated in a more inclusive setting. Ms. Bailey said she would like to see that data by school.

At this stage, it appears the data gathered for the 2009-10 school year will be baseline data, giving a picture of where the District is now. No specific targets have been set.

Board Members’ Visit to an Inclusion School

Several School Board members spoke about a visit they had made to a school in Bloomington, Ind. Andy Pigozzi said the school serves students with severe disabilities in a separate classroom, but the classroom was in a neighborhood school. “Everyone walks through the same door. They don’t have a separate building. The culture was embraced by everybody.” He said, “I walked away being a believer in this model.”

Ms. Bailey said, “It opened my eyes. It’s one of those things where you can see what’s possible. … The goal is that children should be part of the community. …I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

A number of Park School parents who attended the meeting were not convinced. One Park School parent who is also a member of the Leadership Team said, “It’s a wonderful experience you had, but it’s an isolated experience you had.”

Cari Levin, founder of CASE and a member of the Leadership Team, said she hoped the Leadership Team would discuss how the District will serve students with a mental illness. She asked if these students would have a self-contained classroom as a base, and how supports would be structured.

Dr. Murphy said staff at the Bloomington school assisted students with a mental illness in a separate place, but added there was nimbleness, a flexibility to do so. Dr. Cole added, “There’s always a safe place for a student. …There’s a lot of flexibility in the school day, flexibility in schedules, flexibility in personnel.”