Inclusion in NYC:
Are We Making Progress?
The face of education is changing, but change, as we all know, sometimes can be strained and torturous. The separation of general and special education is not working, and either a merger or close collaboration seems to be indicated. This leads us to the dreaded “I” word, which often can be found at the center of debates that quickly turn heated and ugly. Inclusion is a topic that causes otherwise stable and level-headed administrators to go ballistic as they as they try to come up with negative arguments to combat a basic truth. The truth is, “All children can learn and all children should have the opportunity to learn together.”
Thirty-one years have passed since PL 94-142 (The Education for All Handicapped Children Act) became the law of the land. Then in 1991 the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) gave students with disabilities access to the general education curriculum. These new mandates increased the opportunities for students with disabilities to be educated alongside their general ed. peers. They placed the education of children with handicaps in the least restrictive environment and disabled children were now required to be educated with their non-handicapped peers to the greatest extent possible. That said, and with statistics that mainly support that the above requirements are being met, it is still a matter of understanding which schools are actually practicing inclusion and which are merely paying lip-service to the best practices that have been identified.
Parents have found that in order to get their children into a worthwhile inclusion program, they have to hunt far and wide, getting answers like “we don’t do that here!” The fact is that inclusion is happening, but it seems to be the best kept secret of the DOE.
Schools have gotten increased funding to create opportunities for all students and principals now have the authority and funds to create inclusive classrooms. The DOE in its commitment to Least Restricted Environment (LRE) and inclusive education has funded inclusion classes at more than a 30 percent higher rate than self-contained classes. The question therefore has to be asked, “If everyone is seemingly behind this important initiative, why is it so difficult to find quality inclusive classrooms for students?”
The pressure of running a school can get in the way of seeing the big picture. With accountability on the minds of most Principals, they often don’t see the benefits of inclusive education. The fact is, instructional strategies designed for students with disabilities will have positive effects on all students. Research shows that leadership from the building principal is the key. These leaders are loaded down with getting the school reading and math scores up, increasing the numbers of students graduating with Regents diplomas and with window-dressing programs designed to make the school look good to parents and higher-ups. Where there is commitment and passion, inclusion programs can succeed. It cannot be emphasized enough, that in order to get it right, everyone has to be on board, following the lead of a principal with the vision and perseverance to execute this important approach to education for all students. Teachers and administrators throughout the city have the opportunity to receive extensive training and workshops in sensitivity and best practices. The opportunity is there, but the proper attitude and follow-up in many cases is sometimes sadly lacking.
Can we close the achievement gap that NCLB (No Child Left Behind) addresses? Can we change attitudes towards restructuring schools and creating viable inclusion programs? Can we confidently proclaim these initiatives a success? Only time will tell.#
Dr. Stephen Levy is a former NYC principal and an administrator, NYC Task Force for Quality Inclusive Schooling. Hal Epstein, LIS Region 9 is a founding principal of the Inclusive Brooklyn Studio Secondary School.