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Lessons From San Diego: Too Much Inclusion, Too Fast?

A few years ago, the San Diego school district found that too many of its students with disabilities were spending their school days in segregated settings. Of one group of students, those with mental retardation, 85 percent took classes exclusively with students just like them.

A consultant's report included an account of how these students were sequestered, even at lunch.

"A special education professional commented, 'Look at this!' as she pointed to the students with mental retardation who were sitting at a separate table, each accompanied by a paraprofessional. "These kids need typical language models and they are not getting them. Talk about a lost opportunity." We approached the students and asked them some basic questions like 'What is your name?' In each case, the paraprofessionals answered for the child while declaring them 'nonverbal.' The professional accompanying us questioned how they would ever become verbal if adults were constantly answering for them."

After that report, the district decided to make a huge shift in the placement of students with disabilities, and cut its special education budget significantly at the same time.

As a reporter from the Voice of San Diego quickly found, no one was critical of the idea of inclusion at the time the district wanted to make the shift. In fact, inclusion is widely regarded as the attitude districts should have and what is best for students, and when districts segregate too much, they may be punished. But San Diego parents, who had advocated for more inclusion, were alarmed by the district's approach, which has turned out to be problematic in practice.

Now three years into the shift to inclusion, parents and educators are wondering: Did San Diego move too fast? One parent, who oversees special education in a nearby district, reacted by plucking his young son with autism out of the district before the switch.

The district tried to train its teachers to work with students with disabilities, but it made the training optional. The teachers' union president—the union had a hand in the training being optional—told reporter Will Carless that brief training wasn't enough, and some of the students should be segregated because they pose a danger to teachers. (I sense a vicious cycle here.)

One principal told him that teachers and principals set in their ways decided they didn't need to change—and kids have suffered the consequences. An example: One teacher was told that he needed to give extra time for homework to a child with autism. A teacher's aide reported that the teacher's attitude was "I don't give extra time to anybody."

Mr. Carless concluded that individual schools were left to figure out how to become more inclusive on their own, affecting the education of students with disabilities and their classmates in the process. And some principals told him that three years into the district's shift to more inclusion for its students with disabilities, they still struggle with the mandate. Each year they must learn to teach children with disabilities they have not encountered at the school before. But principals said they were too busy to be trained at the time.

Now, in retrospect, one principal said that definitely was not the way to go.

"That's certainly not the way this should have happened with such a huge transition. I would have expected an army of special ed. experts being available to us," the principal told Carless.

As for students who may need a specialized setting? (I know some people would disagree that any child needs such a placement.) That, principals said, isn't really an option anymore.

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