When Mallori Montiel was ready for kindergarten, her parents faced the choice between sending her to a regular school in their district or a special school for students with disabilities.
``I didn't want to make a wrong decision that would affect her for the rest of her life,'' says Kim Montiel, Mallori's mother. The turning point came when Mallori's early-childhood teacher asked: ``Do you want to teach her to be handicapped or do you want to teach her to be normal?'' Ms. Montiel recalls.
For the past five years, Mallori, now a fourth-grader, has attended regular classes at Wyland Elementary School in a working-class suburb of St. Louis. She rolls her wheelchair into the cafeteria at lunch time and sits with the rest of her class. If there's a school field trip, Mallori goes along. ``It's been absolutely wonderful,'' her mother says.
A civil rights issue
In school districts across the nation, an increasing number of disabled students are sitting in classrooms, eating in lunchrooms, and playing on playgrounds with their peers rather than being isolated in special classrooms or schools with other disabled children.
Of the 5.17 million ``special-needs'' students in American public schools, 35 percent spent at least 80 percent of their time in regular classes, according to the US Department of Education.
Including disabled students in regular classes is a civil rights issue for some advocates. ``People have the right to be with the rest of the community and shouldn't be denied access to it,'' says Douglas Biklen, a professor of education at Syracuse University in New York and author of ``Schooling Without Labels.''
``Clearly, students do more poorly when they feel as though they are not accepted, as though they are outsiders,'' Mr. Biklen says. ``That's really the message of segregated schooling.''
But the movement toward ``inclusion'' is sparking controversy among teachers, parents, and education experts. ``The inclusion forces certainly have some parents on their side who are adamant that they want their kids in regular classes in their neighborhood school,'' says James Kauffman, a professor of special education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. ``But there are other parents, in at least equal numbers, who want their children in special classes or special schools.''
The debate centers around how far to take the concept. Should even the most severely handicapped students be placed in regular classrooms? And should students remain in regular classes all day or be pulled out for special instruction for portions of the day?
Teachers' unions have spoken out against ``full inclusion'' of all students regardless of their disability, calling it a ``budget-cutting device using the fig leaf of altruism.''
When disabled students are ``dumped'' in regular classes without support services, the results can be disastrous for the needy students, regular students, and overwhelmed teachers, union officials say.
``Many districts have used the concept of inclusion to save money,'' says Karen Waldron, a professor of education at Trinity University in San Antonio. ``Inclusion done properly is actually more expensive because you need to hire even more professionals who can go in the regular classroom and make it work.''
At Wyland Elementary here in St. Louis, the number of special-education teachers has remained about the same during the transition to inclusion in recent years, says principal Barry Weston.
``The only way inclusion will work is with a specialist and teacher working together,'' Dr. Weston says. But he stops short of full inclusion. ``There are some things that can be done better outside the regular classroom setting,'' he says. ``The program needs to be designed around the needs of the kids.''
Most of the disabled students at Wyland spend at least half of their school day in regular classes. By the end of this year, Mallori Montiel is expected to spend nearly all her time with her classmates. ``Each year she has increased her time in regular classes,'' says Mallori's mother.
When disabled students are in regular classes at Wyland, there is often a special-education teacher on hand to assist the regular classroom teacher. ``The biggest difference with inclusion is the amount of collaboration required between teachers,'' Weston says. ``But everybody in the class is getting the benefit from those two teachers. And we're getting much better use of our faculty.''
Dawn Russom, a first-grade teacher at Wyland, says working with special-education teacher Don Bohannon this year has benefited both her students and her own career. ``There are many more hands and a lot more ideas,'' she says. ``I learn strategies from Don that I end up using in all kinds of lessons for my regular students too.''
Teachers at Wyland are convinced that both disabled students and regular students benefit from inclusion. ``The higher-level kids take on a greater role and really become peer teachers,'' Bohannon says. ``Plus it breaks down a lot of prejudices.''
Once in regular classes, disabled students ``start raising their own expectations for themselves,'' says special-education teacher Alicia Lucas. ``They want to do what the other kids are doing.''
Despite the enthusiasm of teachers at Wyland and other schools with inclusion efforts, there are signs that some teachers are disturbed by the trend.
A teacher in Connecticut, for example, complains about having four disabled students among 29 third-graders - and no classroom assistance. An Indianapolis teacher says she spends the entire school year worrying that a student with an emotional disability will seriously injure a student.
In a survey conducted recently for the American Federation of Teachers, 60 percent of teachers polled said they did not have time to give special-needs students the attention required. About half said the presence of disabled children made it more difficult to maintain discipline.
There is an inherent ``political correctness'' to inclusion, Professor Kauffman says, which makes it difficult for critics to confront. ``A lot of unhappiness with it, on the part of teachers, is not going to be expressed because it's very easy to be misinterpreted as being insensitive,'' he says. ``A lot of teachers don't want to go on record against it.''