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Is Full Inclusion a Good Idea?

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In the latest chapter of the 10-part video series about a year in the life of the Mission Hill School in Boston, we see a teacher being rushed by her student, another teacher asking for help, and a whole team of teachers meeting to discuss the best ways to help the children with the greatest needs.

Like a growing number of schools around the country, Mission Hill is a full inclusion school, meaning every classroom is filled with every kind of student - from the "gifted and talented" to the severely disabled.

Like any other school trying to deliver on the promise of full inclusion, Mission Hill has good days and bad days. Yet it's clear from the video that the bonds between the faculty are sufficiently strong to weave a comprehensive web of adult support that will help all children learn.

What about other schools? After all, it's a great idea in theory - bridging the gap that exists between young people with disabilities and the world around them - but is it feasible in practice?

Longtime AFT president Al Shanker felt quite strongly that it was not. "Requiring all disabled children to be included in mainstream classrooms," he wrote back in 1995, "regardless of their ability to function there, is not only unrealistic but also downright harmful--often for the children themselves."

For Shanker, the problem came down to money and training. It began in 1975, when Congress passed the landmark Education for All Handicapped Children Act, and declared that youngsters with disabilities have had a right to a "free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment." The feds even promised to fund 40% of the costs associated with educating handicapped children. In the nearly four decades since, however, not once have they reached that threshold, and as of today the federal government, amidst all the other budget cuts taking place, accounts for less than 17% of the bill.

Absent the dollars to pay for services and professional development, Shanker felt the noble idea of full inclusion was actually just setting teachers up for failure - and classrooms of children for disappointment. "In calling for all disabled children to be placed in regular classrooms regardless of the severity and nature of their difficulty," he argued, "full inclusion is replacing one injustice with another."

I got a sense of what Shanker was saying when I watched the 1992 documentary Educating Peter, which chronicles the mainstreaming of a young boy with Down Syndrome, and the challenges his teacher and classmates face along the way.

Seeing Peter's repeated acts of aggression, and repeated disruptions of the class, one can't help but feel that everyone else is suffering as a result of one child's outsized needs. Yet I also felt deeply touched by the movie, and by the ways in which Peter's peers slowly develop their own supportive network - of Peter, yes, but also of each other. What these children were learning had nothing to do with academic content - and everything to do with how you treat people, help people, and learn to live alongside each other in relative harmony.

Is such a series of life lessons worth the tumult and the disruptions?

I wanted to learn more about the ways Mission Hill prepared itself to do full inclusion well, so I asked principal Ayla Gavins to share a bit of their back story. Here's what she said:

"In 2006 we were assigned a substantially separate class of students through the special education department. In 2007 we integrated that class into our other "regular ed" classrooms. During that period we dove deep as a group to increase our understanding. We read Widening the Circle by Mara Sapon Chevin, and Mindset by Carol Dweck. We visited schools such as the William Henderson Inclusion School and watched the documentary Including Samuel as a staff.

"Most importantly, we recognized that the path to full inclusion is a process; it doesn't happen all at once. For schools just getting started I'd recommend taking the following steps:

1. Help all teachers acquire special education licensure.
2. Read or watch a film about inclusion, and create lots of opportunities to discuss them.
3. Reserve lots of time to talk about doubts, fears and questions as a staff.
4. Be explicit with children and families about why inclusion is a community value.
5. Create time/space for discussion about inclusion with students and families.

"I understand where critics of full inclusion are coming from," Ayla concluded. "It's very easy for inclusion to go horribly wrong, resulting in an environment where the learning shuts down for everyone. One question I would ask, though, is who decides the limit on a person's learning? Full inclusion does not mean students are without supports. With the right supports, who knows what children will learn from one another? It doesn't seem right to me to eliminate peer models for learning and behavior. It also doesn't seem right for children to not have an opportunity to develop relationships and understanding or compassion for people who struggle in different ways. Inclusion done properly is responsive to student needs. There isn't one model for it."

What have your experiences been with full inclusion? What's worked? Where are you struggling? And what is still needed (besides the federal government finally honoring its commitment to cover 40% of the costs) to ensure that full inclusion can be successful wherever it occurs?

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