Students currently at Park School will not be forced to leave their school, and the school will remain as a placement option next year, Superintendent Hardy Murphy announced at an April 7 meeting of the District’s Leadership Team, which is overseeing implementation of the District’s Inclusion Plan.

Dr. Murphy subsequently told the RoundTable that self-contained programs would also remain as a placement option for students with a disability, in order to provide a full continuum of services.

 At that same meeting, Assistant Superintendent Mike Robey laid out the District’s plan to expand inclusion next year to the first-grade level at all schools, to the primary grade levels at Dawes School and to all grade levels at Oakton School.

The Leadership Team also considered data showing the percentage of time students with a disability are instructed in general education classrooms in District 65. One goal of the Inclusion Plan is to substantially increase the amount of time students with a disability spend in the general education classroom.

Park School

Many Park School parents have opposed the District’s Inclusion Plan, expressing concerns that Park School will be phased out and eventually closed over time. Park School currently serves 72 students, ages 3-21, who have severe and profound learning and/or physical challenges.

Superintendent Hardy Murphy opened the April 7 meeting of the Leadership Team, saying he had just met with the co-presidents of the PTA of Park School, and he wanted to answer three basic questions in an attempt to quell rumors and “misconceptions” about Park School under the Inclusion Plan.

 “What we want is what is best for the child,” Dr. Murphy said. “What we believe is best” for a child with a disability is for the District to make whatever adjustments are necessary so that the child can experience, to the greatest extent possible, the “normal ebb and flow of the school day,” in the least-restrictive setting.

Dr. Murphy said if the District could not make the necessary accommodations or provide the necessary supports to enable a child to experience the “normal ebb and flow of a school day” in a general education classroom or school, then the District would consider what can be done and “come up with a placement.” He said, “That’s a kind of partnership decision” that will be made in the IEP meetings.

In addressing three basic questions about Park School, he said, “There is no plan to close Park School. It’s not going to close next year.

“The parents who are in Park School are not going to be forced to leave.

“Park School is going to remain an option in the process that I just discussed.”

In a subsequent interview, the RoundTable asked Dr. Murphy about the impact the Inclusion Plan would have on Park School in light of these commitments. Four months ago at a Nov. 30 School Board meeting, Dr. Murphy said 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 could be met in other schools in the District. He also 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, “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.”

 

On April 9, Dr. Murphy softened this
prediction. He told the RoundTable that it was too definitive to say there “would” be a transformation of Park School. He said the correct term was it “could” transform Park School, because there was no way to predict how many children would be placed at the school during the IEP meetings. In an April 8 letter to the PTA co-presidents of Park School he said, “We are not closing Park School because there may always be a child whose needs can best be served at a place like Park School.”

Expansion of Inclusion Next Year

Mr. Robey gave a broad overview of how the Inclusion Plan would be expanded next year. He said that this year the District attempted to include students with a disability in general education classrooms at the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten levels, that it implemented inclusion at all grade levels at Orrington School and that it implemented inclusion in connection with bilingual classes at Washington School.

He said there were a lot of successes. “It’s not to say we haven’t had some struggles, but for most part we’ve felt it’s been pretty successful.”

Dr. Cassandra Cole, a professor at the Indiana University who is consulting with the District, said she had met with teachers who participated in implementing the inclusion program this year, and they reported they were having many successes, including that students’ needs were being met through differentiated teaching and the co-teaching model, that students were meeting their IEP goals quicker than anticipated, and that teachers were building communities in their classrooms.

Dr. Cole said survey questions seeking input on the Inclusion program this year had recently been submitted to certain teachers, parents and students. The results of that survey and test data are not yet available to evaluate the program.

Next year, the District plans to continue inclusion at the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten levels, and in addition, it plans to roll the program up to the first grade level as much as feasibly possible, said Mr. Robey. This year there was a special education teacher assigned to co-teach each kindergarten class; next year a special education teacher will split his or her time between a kindergarten class and a first grade class. The time may be split 50/50, 70/30 or some other variation, he said, saying, “It’s really going to depend on students and their needs.”

The District will continue with the inclusion program at Orrington and Washington Schools. In addition, Mr. Robey said staff was ready to move forward with inclusion at the K-5 grade levels at Oakton next year, along the same lines as is being done at Orrington this year. The number of students in self-contained classrooms at Oakton has been declining in the past several years, he said.

Another change will be at Dawes School. Mr. Robey said Dawes serves higher numbers of students with a disability in self-contained classrooms than Oakton; next year the District will focus on attempting to include students at the lower grade levels into the general education classrooms.

Education Environment Data

One key goal of the Inclusion Model is to educate more students in the general education classroom. Dr. Cole provided the Leadership Team with a report prepared by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), based in part on information submitted by District 65. She said this data would provide baseline data that could be used to measure progress.

On a big-picture basis, the report reflects that this year the District has 748 students with an IEP. Of those students, 57% spend 80% of their time in the general education classroom (the statewide average is 50% of the students); 15%  spend between 60 and 80% of their time in a general education classroom (compared to a statewide average of 18% of the students); and 10% are served in a separate school or facility (compared to a statewide average of 6% of the students).

Several persons said the high percentage of District 65 students who are served in a separate facility may be due, in part, to the number of students housed at Rice School, which is a therapeutic day-school operated under the direction of District 65 and funded under the Orphanage Act.

The data also shows that a higher percentage of black students with an IEP spend more time out of the general education classroom than white students or Hispanic students. For example in 2008, 32% of black students with an IEP spent less than 40% of their time in a general education classroom, compared to 17% for white students and 13% for Hispanic students.

Dr. Murphy said ISBE had just given the District a clean bill of health, finding there was not disproportionate treatment of students based on race.

One parent suggested tracking how District 65 students with an IEP did after they went to the high school, including how many dropped out of school. Dr. Cole said that was a great idea.

Self-Contained Classrooms Will Also Remain an Option

In a Dec. 3, 2009 e-mail to Superintendent Hardy Murphy, Dr. Cassandra Cole, a professor at Indiana University and a consultant to District 65 in connection with implementing the District’s Inclusion Plan, said, “”There is no doubt in my mind that we need to eliminate self-contained programs at SPAAC next year.”” SPAAC is a District 65 program that serves pre-K children with disabilities. The e-mail was recently produced to Citizens for Appropriate Special Education in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

When asked about the e-mail, Dr. Murphy told the RoundTable that Dr. Cole’s comments reflect her thinking and that what is done with her recommendations is the responsibility of the District. He said self-contained programs will remain as an option next year in order to provide a full continuum of services. “”I don’t think we can plan not to have a full continuum of services, so they have to be part of the mix,”” he said. When asked, he said, “”There’s been no directive that members of an IEP team can’t place children in Park School or in a self-contained setting.””

He said, though, that a Board goal is to increase the number of students with a disability who are educated in a general education setting. He said the administration has been pursuing that goal in an “”assertive”” manner, and is attempting to provide the supports necessary to enable students with a disability to be served in a general education setting. He said the administration is attempting to create a “”new inclination”” to explore all avenues to see if the District can educate a child, with supports, in a general education classroom or school before deciding to place that child into a self-contained setting or school.

On Feb. 16, fourteen parents of children with a disability urged the District to maintain self-contained programs and Park School as options for children with severe disabilities. Many said their children could not receive adequate supports in a general education setting. Jean Luft, president of the District Educators Council (the teachers’ union) likewise said the District inclusion plan “”must have a full continuum of services that includes self-contained classrooms and Park School.””

Federal regulations require that schools educate children with disabilities “”to the maximum extent appropriate”” with children who are nondisabled. “”Special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if the nature and severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”” 34 C.F.R. Sec. 300.114.

The regulations also provide that a school district “”must ensure that a “”continuum of alternative placements is available to meet the needs of children with disabilities.”” The continuum “”must”” include “”special classes, special schools, home instruction, and instruction in hospitals and institutions”” and “”make provision for supplementary services (such as resource room or itinerant instruction) to be provided in conjunction with regular class placement.”” Id. Sec. 300.115.