In the 1970s, schools talked about “mainstreaming” special education students. Now, schools that are complying with the federal least restrictive environment mandate are practicing “inclusion.” In the Rockford school district, educators talk about “flexible service delivery.”

Has the policy changed or just the name? Special ed experts say it’s both.

“Mainstreaming was primarily for kids who cognitively were pretty much on target with the rest of the kids,” says Rhonda Best of Project Choices, an inclusion consultancy. Children with disabilities who demonstrated an ability to keep up earned the opportunity to be in a regular education class. They weren’t given any additional support or services and were held to the same criteria as the non-disabled students, Best says.

With inclusion, the special ed student’s “main base is the regular [class],” says Best. “You don’t have to earn your way there.” Rather than taking the student to another room for special services, the help is brought to the regular classroom. By working with him one-on-one or adjusting the material to his level, the child is given the support he needs to learn with the rest of the class.

From the children’s perspective, the difference between mainstreaming and inclusion is, “You’re either part of the class or you’re a visitor,” says Best. One girl in a general ed classroom said “Johnny visits our class,” about a boy in special ed who came in for part of the day, says Best. “It may seem subtle, but that impacts the kids.”

“When we started talking about inclusion, we realized we had created another label,” says Julie West, an instructional supervisor who oversees 10 of Rockford’s 50 schools. “Kids could be identified as the inclusion kids. By using flexible service delivery, it takes the label off the kid.”

Simply put, it means a school pools all of its resources to help all of its students. Further, a child doesn’t have to be referred for a case study evaluation before he can benefit from the school’s special ed resources.

Rockford’s director of special education uses “an egg carton vs. a bucket” analogy, says West. Traditionally in education, “We each come from our own discipline and area of expertise. We don’t cross over boundaries,” she says. Like eggs in a carton, each teacher or therapist stays in his own compartment. “In the bucket model, we do role release.” The staff shares its expertise so that everyone can offer more to each student.

She asks, for example, why should a student who has speech problems work on them only for the hour he’s with the speech and language teacher? “If the regular teacher collaborates with the speech teacher, then they can work on the student’s speech and language goals throughout the day.”

Likewise, “the occupational therapist is only authorized to provide educationally relevant therapies,” says West. For a child with a physical disability, a common therapy is having the child practice climbing a set of stairs in the physical therapy room. “But the stairs lead nowhere. Why not take him to a true environment he needs to navigate?” she asks. Have him climb the school’s stairs. Being able to travel the school safely is educationally relevant, she says.

Rockford has been working on the flexible service delivery model for three years. Progress has been “frustratingly slow,” says Gary Bishop, general director of special education and related services. “We started with two schools; now we have about a dozen on board.”

About 4,300 of the district’s 27,000 students are in special ed.

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