D65 plan encounters hurdles

Brittney Wong

By Brittney WongThe Daily Northwesterndailynorthwestern.com/d65

Last June, Julie De Lara sat down with teachers from Evanston/Skokie School District 65 and a team of specialists to discuss the educational future of her son Michael, a six-year-old with epilepsy and some developmental delays. They concluded Michael would enter diagnostic kindergarten, or special education.

Several days later, De Lara attended a D65 Board of Education meeting in which Superintendent Hardy Murphy presented a document that appeared to suggest all diagnostic kindergarten classrooms would be eliminated. De Lara was told she needed to reconvene her son’s educational plan to redetermine his class placement. As a result, Michael became one of the first special education kindergarteners integrated into general education classrooms in accordance with the district’s inclusion plan instated last year.

“There was no discussion between that Wednesday when I had my (individual educational plan meeting) and the Monday of the announcement,” De Lara said. “No one talked to me. I had no idea. I was completely shocked.”

Recently, about four months into the school year, Murphy said the inclusion plan, which aims to eventually incorporate every special education student into a general education setting, “is going very well.”

“As with anything you do, you can expect there are going to be bumps in the road,” Murphy said.

CONCERNS AND CONFUSION

Some of the bumps Murphy referred to included parental concerns and communication problems.

De Lara, who took Murphy’s announcement to mean the diagnostic kindergarten system was dismantled, was later told one class would remain open at Dawes Elementary School. But after no parents chose to enroll their children in the class, it was eliminated.

“We decided not to take it because Dawes is not our home school,” De Lara said. “It could not be guaranteed that he would continue his education there. He would have gone to Dawes for kindergarten, and then they might have transferred him out. … I still felt that diagnostic kindergarten would have been the best place for him.”

An Exceptional Child Liaison for the Parent Teacher Association, De Lara said the first year of inclusion has been challenging.

“It’s a struggle because of communication,” she said. “It’s a struggle because of staffing issues. It’s a struggle because the general education population was not notified that this would occur, and there was no opportunity to help them prepare for these kids.”

De Lara is not alone in her doubts about inclusion.

“The emphasis across the district is that, ‘We believe that inclusion is the right thing to do,’ but the problem with this is that it’s almost like a moral imperative, that inclusion is what we must do, rather than what the child’s needs are,” said Cari Levin, founding director of

Evanston Citizens for Appropriate Special Education.

Murphy admitted correspondence with parents wasn’t perfect.

“Communication can always be improved,” he said. “We try to do our best to inform parents about their children and different programs. We’ll be working on it.”

INCLUSION PLAN POLICY

Developed by a group of 33 parents, teachers, educators and administrators last spring, the plan includes the following guiding principle: “All students with disabilities have a right to be included in naturally occurring settings and activities with their neighborhood peers, siblings and friends.” In order to accomplish this goal, the district aims to evaluate the extent to which each child can be integrated into general education.

“The district’s approach has been to start from the bottom up, so to identify students at the youngest grade who we believe can succeed in a general education setting with appropriate support,” D65 Communications Director Pat Markham said.

Cassandra Cole, director of the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, said integrated classes have found early success.

“I’ve been in every single kindergarten classroom where there is inclusion, and the students, by teacher report, are thriving,” said Cole, a consultant for D65.

Assistant Superintendent Mike Robey said one reason for the plan’s creation was a federal regulation requiring districts “to maintain and help the child in a setting that’s as close to what their regular education peers would get whenever possible.”

“You would start in a general education classroom with minimal to no supports,” Robey said. “Depending upon the disabilities that the child has, you move up to more intensive services.”

Some parents said they are unsure if the district has the logistical capacity to provide the amount of individualized attention the plan requires.

“The whole concept of public education is to educate as many students as you can,” De Lara said. “With these individual, special kids, they often need something special and different and individualized, and I imagine it becomes much more difficult to administer that.”

PROBLEMS AT PARK

Members in the special needs community are especially anxious about the fate of Park School, which is exclusively dedicated to D65 students with disabilities. The plan lists the following as a strategy: “Review inclusion for Park School and include Park students in implementation timeline.”

District administrators, however, said they do not intend to close Park.

“Obviously, as time goes on, it is very likely that Park School and the way it looks will be transformed, but there’s no intention to shut down the school and stop providing services for the children,” Markham said. “What we’re hoping is that over time, more of the children who traditionally have been served in Park School will be able to be served in cluster programs that are closer to their attendance-area school so that they can then matriculate into middle school with the peers from their community.”

Parents are also concerned about the availability of educational supports like student aides as more classrooms are integrated.

“In order for them to do that in a way that’s cost-effective, they’re going to need to pull resources out of Park School and put them into the cluster sites,” Levin said. “Park School will shrink. … It will become smaller and smaller until it’s not there anymore.”

MOVING FORWARD

The administration recently appointed the District Leadership Committee, scheduled to begin work Jan. 20, to evaluate the plan and its implementation.

De Lara said communication has improved, citing focus groups and surveys implemented after the plan was instated. As a mother of a child with special needs, De Lara’s first priority is to move forward.

“I think we have to focus on how to make this program better.”

[email protected]