City Watch: D65 inclusion not fit-all plan

Nathalie Tadena

It is a challenge for any parent, teacher or administrator to understand and cater to the individual needs of students as best they can. So it’s no surprise why this issue is of particular importance to the parents of special education students in Evanston/Skokie School District 65.

In recent weeks, many parents have expressed concern over the district’s inclusion initiative, which could eventually place all special education students into a general education setting. As the district’s inclusion plan states, “All students with disabilities have a right to be included in naturally occurring settings and activities with their neighborhood peers, siblings and friends.”

Many parents are also concerned about the future of Park School, which is designated exclusively for special needs students, though administrators say it will not be closing.Integrating classrooms would provide various academic and social benefits for special needs students, but inclusion should not be viewed as a one-size-fits-all policy. In order for the inclusion policy to be successful, D65 administrators must ensure the adequate training of teachers, accessibility of services and a strong support system are in place to help students of varying needs, particularly those with more extensive physical and cognitive needs, such as those students at Park.

“You can’t just do inclusion for inclusion’s sake,” said Cassandra Cole, director of the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community. “You have to do it to meet the individual needs of students you’re working with and be very conscious that teachers have the skills necessary to meet the needs of students.”

The success of inclusion policies is best measured on a student-by-student basis by tracking every child’s ability to make progress based on their individualized educational program goals, Cole said Monday. She is also a consultant with D65 and said inclusion classrooms in the district have been successful so far.

“The access to the physical space, as well as to the curriculum and instruction so that they’re included and can really participate, that is a big challenge,” Park School Principal Marlene Grossman said Monday.

In interviews with The Daily last week, parents of special education students said there have been miscommunications with the district regarding its plans, which special education advocate Marian Casey said Monday has resulted in worry for families.

“It’s very hard for those parents to visualize that happening because they don’t see that or visualize it and are not assured of it,” said Casey, who serves as the director for the non-profit organization Answers for Special Kids. She also suggested creating a pilot program at one of the D65 schools that would demonstrate the services and support available in a general education classroom.

For now, there is a clear need for Park School services. Park may provide the least restrictive environment for many special needs students, and district parents should at least have the ability to decide what’s best for their child.

As Jean Luft, president of the District 65 Educators’ Council, said Monday, “We feel that the people that can best decide a child’s placement is the people who work with them and their parents. We want as many options as possible open to parents.” This would include the continued operation of Park School.

Inclusion is a complicated policy, but it is one that could work in Evanston if it can continue to accommodate students’ needs in a new setting. Though it’s only four months into the initiative, administrators say the policy has been successful thus far.

Discussions at D65 are moving forward. The creation of a committee to evaluate inclusion policies is a sign meaning efforts are ongoing and inclusive of the community. One can only hope future conversations will address parents’ specific and individualized concerns.

City Editor Nathalie Tadena is a Medill junior. She can be reached at [email protected]