[Photo by Bill Kirby]

In May, Catalyst asked Mary Anne Calle, a reading teacher at Darwin Elementary, what it thought was a simple question: How many special education students are in your 6th-grade reading class? For a moment, Calle is silent. “Hmm, let’s see …,” she says, doing a mental scan of her room. “Well, the boy who read the instructions is in special ed, and the boy behind him, the one that raised his hand, he is and …” She pauses again. Just then, another teacher walks by, and Calle grabs him: “Wait, here’s the home room teacher, he’ll know.”

But he can’t come up with the answer quickly, either. Together, they finally conclude the number is five.

Calle laughs. “I know it seems strange that we don’t know this right off the top of our heads, like we don’t know our kids, but we don’t see special ed or regular ed,” she says. “We just see students.”

And that, advocates for the disabled would say, is precisely the point of the Corey H. settlement.

Over the past three years, teachers in the upper grades at Darwin have learned how to educate special education students in the least restrictive environment—all 56 students have been assigned to regular classrooms. In the process, teachers have found themselves giving more support to regular students as well.

For example, Calle sometimes uses an overhead projector and different colored markers to help students focus.

“If I’m working on nouns, I write them down in the same color to call attention to them and make them stand out,” she explains. “This was a technique I initially came up with to help special ed students, but it helps the others too. In the past, I would have used the projector strictly for behavior control. For instance, instead of having my back to the class, I’m facing them.”

“Our teachers have become service providers for all kids,” says Darwin Principal Maria Shelley. “After all, what is special education anyway? That some children learn differently or take a little longer to learn? That description fits some of our general population, too. So providing all of them with support and having expectations that they all can learn is very important.”

The results have been improved learning for both groups of students, she says.

Shelley says that while she always has been “inclusion-minded,” even before she learned the term, she hadn’t planned to transform her school. In 1997, the CPS Office of Specialized Services asked her to apply for an inclusion grant, and she did, thinking “we’d just get our toes wet and test the waters to see what we could do.”

In the meantime, CPS announced it would settle the Corey H. lawsuit and proceeded to mount the Education Connections program to address the school system’s special education shortcomings. With an application in the pipeline, Darwin became one of the first 28 Education Connections schools.

“The first year was horrible,” Shelley recalls. “Teachers were mad. They pointed fingers at me and at one of the teachers who helped write the grant. They were concerned that if the special education students were grouped in with the regular population, the test scores would drop, which would penalize the school.”

Shelley turned to Project Choices, an initiative of the Illinois State Board of Education, for help. Once a month, a four-person team visited the school to work closely with the upper-grade teachers but also to help all teachers understand what inclusion is, what inclusive practices are and why inclusion was being done.

“We call it Inclusion 101,” laughs Lynda Atherton, a Project Choice consultant who has worked with Darwin for three years.

Atherton says consultants observed classes, looked at lesson plans and taught teachers how to modify them for special education students.

In addition, the school received training from specialists in the Region office.

“It was important that the whole school be involved,” says Karen Ray, a 6th-grade special education teacher. “We try to keep this in front of the whole school so that our lower grades can begin to use inclusion practices.”

Eventually, teachers warmed to the idea.

“Once teachers began to see that students were becoming successful, they bought into it,” says Shelley. “Looking back, our teachers complained, but they did it, and they did a great job. They made this program possible.”

One of the main things regular teachers learned is how to use modify lessons and teach in a way that reaches all students.

For example, some special education students may need to have the first step of a math problem worked out so they can see how to proceed. Some may need a list of questions to help them structure an essay. Regular students may benefit from modifications, too.

“I modify the lessons, but it’s the general education teacher’s call on who needs it, and generally they’ve developed good judgment about that,” say Ray. “For instance, if a regular ed child is stuck on putting an outline together to write a paper, a modified assignment may get that child going again.”

Darwin teachers also try not to make special education students stand out. For example, modified worksheets are made to look like regular ones. “I’m still learning to do this, but usually we do modified assignments in such a way that kids don’t know who’s getting what,” says Ray.

‘Just good, solid teaching’

Calle says teachers also are careful not to “dummy down” the curriculum. “I teach on a lot of levels. I might ask a question a certain way because I’m focused on reaching one particular child. I might phrase the same question a different way that will reach only the upper-level kids. We use a variety of synonyms and examples to reach the variety of abilities in the classroom.”

Says Ray: “General education teachers do lots and lots of hands-on, outlining, explaining, re-explaining, using visuals, having students take notes, using audio tools, graphic organizers and story maps. The bottom line is what they’re doing is probably just good, solid teaching. They construct their lessons in such a way that all kids benefit.”

Darwin’s special education teachers follow the students assigned to them from one class to the next. In the past, students were pulled out of class for special services, which teachers found disruptive for them. Now, teachers provide in-classroom support. Each grade level also has a special education aide who can help.

If in-class help isn’t enough, students can be taken to a room set aside for that purpose. “We call it a ‘resource period’ or ‘study hall,'” says Ray.

After school, both general and special education teachers in the upper grades are available for an hour of tutoring.

Ray says the program’s success has a lot to do with Shelley’s commitment to it and how she has created time for teachers to plan together. Darwin teachers get four preparation periods a week instead of the three required by the teacher contract; two are shared preps that allow teachers at each grade level to work together. Teachers at each grade level also share a 20-minute lunch period because Shelley consolidated the morning and afternoon 10-minute breaks.

Shelley also used discretionary funds to pay for “resource” teachers to offer art, computer education, physical education or media center activities while special education and regular classroom teachers collaborate.

“This time together is crucial,” says Ray. “Teachers have to have time to plan and talk. Believe it or not, we really need more time.”

Shelley points to continually rising test scores as evidence that inclusion is working at Darwin. In 1996, a year before the program started, 14 percent of Darwin’s students scored at or above national norms in reading on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. In 1997, the year the program was implemented and special education students were included in test score reports, the percentage jumped to 23. By 1999, it was 31.

Math scores followed a similar pattern, rising from 15 percent at or above norms in 1996 to 37 percent in 1999.

“And our teachers were concerned about our test scores going down,” Shelley says with a laugh.

What has gone down, Shelley says, is discipline problems among special education students; they’re almost nonexistent.

“We have some kids with emotional and behavioral disorders in the upper grades,” Shelley says. “When they were in self-contained classes, they had no one to model. I think some of them also suffered from low self-esteem. But in an inclusive environment, they want to fit in, and they imitate their classmates.”

Parents see a difference, too.

“I was nervous at first. My son was, too,” says Alma Galvan, whose 8th-grader has been in the inclusion program since 6th grade. “Sometimes the kids in the general ed program are a little more aggressive, and he thought they’d tease him. But that hasn’t happened. He’s learning more, and tells me he doesn’t feel like he’s stupid.”

Next year, Shelley hopes to expand the program to 5th grade, even as the Education Connections grant runs out.

“If we need money for books and materials, we’ll look for other funding,” she says. “Otherwise, for staff development, I think we’ll be OK. Our teachers are really on the ball and have become experts. They can train any new staff themselves.”

Atherton of the state’s Project Choices says the program uses Darwin as a model of inclusion and has asked its teachers to present their practices to other schools in the city and state.

“I think the secret to our success has been inclusion,” Shelley reflects. “The kids with disabilities don’t feel like outcasts. Regular education students are receiving additional support. Teachers are bonding, as well as teaching differently. Our whole school climate has gotten better.”

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