In the early 1970’s I had the wonderful opportunity of working with two students with special needs whose mother’s were relentless in insisting on a law in Wisconsin that would mandate a quality education for their children as well as others. Elaine Keller and Lila Kelly inspired me to look closely at the needs of their children as well as all students whether they were defined as gifted, with learning problems or were simply involved in the general education program. I always had a curiosity as to why we labeled children rather than simply focusing on their needs. Why do we brand children for failure when we know they are all different in one way or another?
Fast forward to 1985 and I was still learning, not only from parents, but from the children that need us the most. After 15 years of teaching I became the administrator of an alternative school serving the most emotionally problematic kids in the city. From them I learned several hard lessons. One was that every child wanted to learn. They didn’t necessarily want to go to school, but they wanted to be able to read and write and had a tremendous curiosity. I had previously worked with a wide range of disabilities including cognitively disabled children, autistic, physically disabled and others and from them learned that children in general learn in different ways, sometimes at different rates but they always wanted to learn. What was important was that the information learned be valuable to them and their future. I learned that it was necessary to put a strong focus on what was important including the skills necessary to continue lifelong learning on their own.
Recently when I had the opportunity to visit schools, I paid attention to details when it came to the treatment of students with special needs. I saw many different approaches disguised as meeting student’s needs. Although the term “normalization” turned into “mainstreaming” which turned into “inclusion”, I became less and less content with the efforts of schools to provide education that was appropriate. The branding iron was everywhere and I was concerned that a lack of student confidentiality would lead to a continued culture of failure. Visiting a school I was directed to the special education wing located in the basement, isolated from the mainstream. Every child that went into that room was branded and their confidentiality compromised. In other situations the special needs program was in the mainstream, however, all students were aware of the special education teacher and that every student that went to them for classes was branded. In one school I was told that there was an assembly but room 225 wasn’t attending. They were the room 225 kids. Hmmm wonder who they were? And the list went on and on. It was hard for me to believe that after 40 years these situations still existed.
After all these years, isolation seemed to continue to be a problem. It appears that, at its roots, was the most complex as well as misunderstood concept known as inclusion. It was clear that when attempts at inclusion failed or became difficult, schools seemed to revert to the same old practices of isolation. Least restrictive appropriate education gave way to the easier path to follow as students in isolation had fewer problems and teachers were more able to focus on their perceived needs. IEP’s could be followed a lot closer and activities more easily designed to serve students. Those who saw artificial success in the inclusion model approached it as the haphazard dumping of special needs students into a class that wasn’t even designed for the general education students who were there. And simply putting a special education teacher in the room did no more than lead students to a standardized goal not necessarily in line with their educational plan, unless, of course the IEP was changed to meet the needs of the school rather than the student. These students were subtly pulled away from their IEP’s to meet the goals of NCLB.
Yet the question lingers, why is this the case in so many schools, what happened to inclusion? Like any other kind of innovation or new program, if the mind set of educators doesn’t grasp the purpose, it will be programmed to fail. There are times failure is the desired outcome for educators who lack the courage to change. Comfort in the status quo often over rides the needs of children for those educators who don’t have the agenda of children in their hearts. The norm in the general education program remains that the students had to meet the needs of the class rather than the other way around. Did we not recognize that there was a reason inclusion and least restrictive environment was implemented?
Now we fast forward again to 1995. With the help of my colleague and co author, Mary Gale Budzisz and the support of then superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools Dr. Howard Fuller, we designed our own “innovative” school which was accepted and implemented as a regular public school. Although both Mary Gale and I had special education backgrounds, this school was to serve all children. As we explored the future of special education within our school, our first thoughts were that the problem throughout many schools was the rigid system of general education and its refusal to accept student differences. Planning our new school, we wondered what would happen if children came to school simply as children without preconceived notions? What if teachers, degreed in special education, were just considered teachers and worked with all children? What if a greater or less restrictive environment happened on occasion when needed rather than all of the time in an isolated wing of the school? And what if student’s educational needs were met without being isolated into a particular room? From these questions, came our desire to develop a school that truly served the needs of all children.
What about inclusion? It seems the only reason we need inclusion is that students were excluded in the first place. What if we turned the system inside out? We decided to design a school where all children entered as children and then their needs were met with a team of teachers working together to assure all had an appropriate education. This plan empowered a team of teachers to decide schedules on a daily basis as well as create a learning environment based on individual needs. When called for, students might be broken into groups of similar abilities, regardless of their label. On other occasions students would work together on projects, each with assignments appropriate to their needs. Other groups would go into the community in search of teachable moments connected directly to the curriculum. And this is not isolated to students with special needs. All students are different and have different needs. The sooner we realize that, the sooner education will become appropriate for all. For example, quite often students without the special education label would have the same educational needs as those with the label. Therefore, although the “special education teachers” managed the IEP needs of the students, they were simply teaching all children in an educationally appropriate manner. And all children were learning.
Of course our school was implemented before the NCLB legislation was enacted. It was easier then. How can we make these changes today? With the rigid goals and time frames mandated by the legislation, the student IEP became mute in lieu of teaching to the test required in the legislation. With the NCLB, appropriate education for students with special needs was diminished or, in many cases eliminated. The IEP became tarnished, either shoved into a folder never again to be seen or manipulated to give the appearance of individual goals. In reality, the IEP goals became the NCLB “teach to the test” goals ignoring the needs of children. We must remember, however, that the IEP is backed by law while NCLB is simply a suggestion backed by money. The IEP takes precedence as it is mandated by the state while NCLB, being a federal program, must only be followed if states wish to receive the money. I am looking forward to the day that a class action lawsuit clarifies this issue.
Under our philosophy of a new innovative school, no longer would special education be compromised to fit into the antiquated general education process, but general education would follow the lead of special education with a stronger effort to serve all children in the way they learn best and at their best rate. Recognizing that all children are different, isn’t it in their best interest to meet their goals one step at a time? Since children in the general education program also have a wide variety of needs, perhaps they too should have an IEP type document addressing those needs. This document might not be as detailed as the IEP, but a document that will guide them on their pathway to success. That’s how our new innovative school plan for a MAP (My Action Plan) came about. This is often referred to as an IEP for all. Once we start meeting needs of children in general, those with special needs are automatically included allowing those who move slower through the system to do so without fear of catastrophic failure and humiliation while those who move faster are able to pass through the system at their best rate. Imagine a 14 year old student attending a university in her/his area of strength while continuing at a high school for other classes. No longer would the branding iron be the tool of failure or artificial success. Now children will progress to their successful future never knowing when genius will unfold. And the branding iron will be gone forever.
For more details check out our website and our books at http://www.WholeChildReform.com
Eldon “Cap” Lee attended Eastern Michigan University and after many years of struggle and a short campus career in rock and roll, he decided to go to classes and, following his passion, settled into the teaching profession. From the moment he started teaching at a small catholic school in Michigan, he knew the rules had to be changed. He then travelled to Wisconsin to join the teaching staff at Milwaukee Public Schools. After 15 years of complete enjoyment, he earned his master’s degree at Cardinal Stritch College and principal’s license at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. Degree in hand, he left teaching to become a school administrator, climbing the ladder of success only to yearn for the good old days surrounded by more kids than adults.
Never quite satisfied with the status quo, he aggravated a wide range of professionals until he was able to start his own Milwaukee Village School (a public school) with teacher Mary Gale Budzisz. After fifteen years as an administrator he wisely retired just before the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. Cap discovered then that he could aggravate more people with fewer consequences from outside the system. He will never stop until all students get the opportunity to show what they can accomplish.