Opinion

Including special-needs children in class: Is it worth it?

Alex Barton's story is tragic. But the blessings are real.

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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.

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.

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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.

The school welcomed us with professionalism and grace. Looking back after 11 years (and since we went on to adopt three other children with Down syndrome, I've been through my share of IEPs – the good, the bad, and the downright ugly), I'm impressed and grateful that every person involved made what we were doing look easy. They did not add to my already significant burden as a parent. Never once did they make us feel as though they were doing us a favor. They treated Jonny with dignity.

My belief that Jonny had a vital role to play among his peers was confirmed when his teacher, Miss Bessie, wrote me a four-page letter at the end of the school year. She wrote something I'll never forget: "I am thankful to Jonny for teaching my students and myself unconditional love, sharing, acceptance, humor, and friendship.… As the Bible says, 'Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart'; Jonny certainly taught the children and me to look at the heart; for he has a very big heart!... Jonny has taught the very important "life skills" to his kindergarten friends. Perhaps these will be the most valuable lessons they will learn."

It's a sentiment that echoes year after year. Now in Virginia, Jonny has progressed to ninth grade – where at Harmony Intermediate's awards ceremony recently, the principal and teachers said that in all their years of teaching, it was the most compassionate group of students they'd ever seen. Jonny's teacher, Mrs. Beitz, told the assembly: "You look at your peers for what they can do as opposed to what they can't do."

Shepherding a special-needs student through public school can be deeply frustrating for everyone involved. But it can also produce some inspiring results.

Take Lauren Welsh. Her Loudoun Valley High School peers in Purcellville, Va., voted her Homecoming Queen several years ago.

The success and benefits of inclusion for every member of Lauren's class were obvious – and well worth the 12 years of teamwork by the adults behind the scenes. Such effort helped shape a graduating class of compassionate, caring citizens.

By contrast, Alex Barton's teacher may have failed to grasp the opportunity she had to help his fellow students see him in a better light. Instead, by emphasizing his faults, she unwittingly encouraged her class of kindergartners to think in terms of prejudice and exclusion.

Everyone involved in this sad situation will need remedial help.

Meanwhile, I hope every parent can come to see that our efforts to accommodate the differently-abled in public schools is not a burden, but an invitation.

Barbara Curtis, a mother of 12 and the author of nine books, blogs at www.MommyLife.net.

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