Including special-needs children in class: Is it worth it?
Alex Barton's story is tragic. But the blessings are real.
Recently, a Florida teacher seeking relief from a challenging special-needs student named Alex Barton did the unthinkable: She stood him before his kindergarten peers and encouraged them to say what they didn't like about his behavior. Then she asked the students if they wanted him back in class after his reportedly disruptive actions earlier that day. By a vote of 14 to 2, they booted him.Skip to next paragraph
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Alex's mom was understandably outraged; she plans to sue. The resulting media sound and fury has brought to light the quiet revolution in public schools across America: the placing of special-needs students into regular classrooms.
Federal law holds that children with disabilities have a right to a "free and appropriate public education." But free for whom? Not for the taxpayers, who must foot the bill for the testing, evaluation, special therapy, and classroom support needed by the differently-abled students, who are increasingly popping up in classrooms.
That has parents everywhere asking themselves an uncomfortable yet critical question: Does the practice of inclusion detract from my child's education? Is it really worth it?
It all depends on your point of view. Mine has changed in the past 30 years, a result of having raised two generations of children – and seeing some unexpected benefits from having my son Jonny, who has Down syndrome, enrolled in regular school.
My oldest went to school when "special ed" kids were housed in trailers behind the school. That was a step up from the days when they were institutionalized, but the segregation still emphasized their differences.
But true to our country's melting pot idealism – in which the public schools are traditionally called on to do the stirring – special-needs students were soon included in the mix. It was a welcome change, but it created individual challenges that had to be confronted and hammered out between parents and educators on a case-by-case basis.
I was drawn into this drama 11 years ago when Jonny entered Kindergarten. As a fiscal conservative, I actually struggled with the idea that our small, rural school district would bear the extra burden of a student who in the eyes of the world might never amount to much.
But as enrollment time approached, I became convinced that he could make a unique contribution to his class. So Jonny became the first student with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) at Liberty Elementary School in Petaluma, Calif.