On June 1, Assistant Superintendent Michael Robey provided the District 65 School Board with an update on the progress of implementing the District’s Inclusion Plan during the 2009-10 School Year. He also outlined how inclusion would expand next year. The plan is intended to integrate students with a disability into the regular classroom.

He was joined by the principal of Dawes School, Karen Bradley, and a panel of teachers who taught in inclusion classrooms this year.

Based on staff survey results, Mr. Robey said a large majority of the teachers who taught in the inclusion classrooms this year believed that students, both with and without disabilities, benefited from being in an inclusion setting.

Ms. Bradley said, “Our staff was ready … and really approached it with a ‘making it work’ attitude.” She added, “We couldn’t be happier with the achievement that kids have had throughout this year.”

Expansion of Inclusion

At the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, the District began implementing an inclusion model at the pre-K level and at the kindergarten level of all schools. Mr. Robey said that 25 children at the pre-K level and 36 at the kindergarten level who traditionally would have been placed in self-contained classrooms or restrictive settings were placed in regular classroom settings this past year. Co-teaching and additional support services were provided in those classrooms.

Mr. Robey said the inclusion model was also implemented at the K-5 grade levels at Orrington School and implemented in connection with the Two-way Immersion (TWI) classes at Washington School. He said that 20 students at Orrington School and 25 at Washington School were brought into the regular classrooms from self-contained settings at those schools.

Next year, Mr. Robey said the District plans to roll up the inclusion plan to include first grade at all schools, to expand the inclusion program to all grade levels at Oakton School (similar to the inclusion model at Orrington), and to expand the inclusion program to the primary grade levels at Dawes.

He estimated that this expansion will enable the District to serve an additional 43 students in regular classrooms who traditionally would have been served in self-contained settings.

Mr. Robey said placement decisions are being made on an individual basis as part of the process of developing an Individual Education Program (IEP) for each student.

Class Size, Class Balance, Co-Teaching, and Common Planning Time

Many questions at the meeting focused on class size, class balance, co-teaching and the need for teachers to have common planning time.

Class size: Four parents of students at Orrington School, where inclusion was implemented at the K-5 grade levels this past year, gave high marks to the program. They raised concerns, though, about class size at the first-grade level, which had three sections for 74 students, with the possibility of increased enrollment this year. One parent said it appeared teachers were “maxed out.” The parents urged that another section be added at the second-grade level next year.

Some Orrington parents are also concerned that next years first-grade classes will have more than 25 students per section. At the Board’s Finance Committee meeting on June 7, Lora Taira said the District’s Information Services Department would be recommending another teacher at Orrington for the first-grade level.

In light of proposed cuts in the state’s funding of education, there has been a general reluctance to add new teachers to reduce class size if the class sizes do not exceed the District’s guidelines. The District issued reduction in force notices in March to 29 non-tenured teachers, only some of whom have been called back.

Under the District’s class size guidelines, the “target enrollment” is 23 students for kindergarten, 25 for first and second grades, 26 for third grade, and 27 for fourth and fifth grades.

Class balance: Another issue is class balance, which is a concern of teachers and administrators. One teacher on the panel said she had six students with an IEP in her classroom and eight students with a Tier 2 intervention plan (which are interventions targeted to remediate a specific skill). She said when the co-teacher is not in the room, “I have to make a decision whether I’m going to go over to help students with IEPs, who need me, or to go over to help other kids who need me as well.”

She added, “So it’s really tough to find that balance between giving students individualized activities where they feel that they can do things independently, and then going over to help other kids.”

Mr. Robey said the principals in each school building sit down with staff each year and prepare class lists that attempt to balance out the classrooms. Ms. Bradley said class lists are prepared and then looked at with “different sets of eyes,” so that “no one teacher has the most needy kids all in one room.”

Mr. Robey said, by law, no more than 30% of a class may be composed of students with an IEP; the percent goes up to 40% if there is a co-teacher.

Co-teaching: When asked about the amount of co-teaching that will be available in each classroom, Mr. Robey said, “It depends on the needs of the schools.”

It appears, though, that it will be less than the amount of time available this past year. Mr. Robey said additional co-teaching time was allotted this past year because it was the first year of implementing the inclusion plan, and administrators wanted to be sure the plan got off to a good start.

“We really have to look at each child’s IEP and see what the IEP calls for to determine how much of a co-teaching model you will have,” Mr. Robey said about next year. “We’re going to look at every child in the classroom, determine what the services are they need and plan for delivering those services. It could be anything from a full time co-teacher to someone coming in as we do at Orrington for periods of time as co-teaching. But it would not likely be full-time co-teaching in many of those settings.”

Co-planning Time: A number of teachers said co-planning time is essential so teachers can jointly develop “a differentiated program where there’s really a plan.” One special education co-teacher added, “Planning time is crucial to be able to plan not only your co-teaching time, but what types of supports and modifications and accommodations are going to happen when I’m not in the classroom …”

Another teacher commented that co-planning time was essential to coordinate the delivery of special services provided by speech therapists, social workers, psychologists and others.

Mr. Robey said providing for common planning time was “a conversation we are having across the District.” He said administrators and teachers were focusing on, “How do we continue or initiate opportunities for planning time, because that is a concern.”

Teacher and Parent Surveys

In a survey designed to learn about District 65 teachers’ attitudes, 85% said they thought students with mild disabilities benefit, in general, from inclusion in the general education classrooms. A memo prepared by Dr. Cassandra Cole, a consultant to the District on inclusion, said this and other survey responses indicate that staff are open and willing to welcome, include, educate and support students with disabilities.

She said, though, the term “mild” which modified disabilities in many questions throughout the survey, “may need to be eliminated or better defined” in future surveys. Jean Luft, the president of the District Educators Council (the teachers’ union), said at a Leadership Team meeting on March 24 that teachers struggled with what was meant by the term “mild disabilities.” She added it would have been helpful to have included questions with respect to students who had “severe disabilities.”

In response to another survey question, 60% of the teachers said they believed there were insufficient resources for inclusion of students with mild disabilities to succeed. Dr. Cole said, “It is not uncommon, especially at the beginning of any change initiative in public education for staff to believe that they need more resources.”

Later surveys of staff and parents to gather impressions about how the inclusion program worked this year were generally very favorable. 

In a survey of faculty and paraprofessionals involved in inclusion classrooms this past year, 81% of the respondents said they believed students with disabilities in their classroom benefited academically from inclusion; 90% said they believed these students benefited socially and emotionally from inclusion; and 71% said they believed that inclusion has not negatively affected the academic performance of general education students, with 27% remaining neutral on this issue.

 In response to a survey of parents of students with a disability, 91% of the respondents said they believed their child made progress toward his or her IEP goals; 95% believed their child’s social skills improved; and 95% believed their child benefited from inclusion.

A suggestion was made by Board member Katie Bailey at a Leadership Team meeting on March 24 that the parent survey include not only parents of students with a disability, but parents of all students. At that time, Superintendent Hardy Murphy agreed it would be important to obtain the views of all parents and to see how views change over time.