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Principals Solve Inclusion Challenges

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Five members of Education World's "Principal Files" team are facing -- and overcoming -- the obstacles to inclusion. In spite of budget and staffing constraints, they are committed to educating all students in the least restrictive setting. Included: Principals share ideas for creating an inclusive environment.

For many principals, the logistics of setting up inclusive classrooms is the biggest obstacle to success. The number of special education teachers often is the determining factor in school's approach to inclusion. The small number of specially qualified teachers -- and the fact that they must work their schedules around literacy blocks, lunchtimes, and other set schedules -- forces many schools to group special-needs students rather than to spread them out evenly among all the classrooms.

At Silver Sands Middle School in Port Orange, Florida, 27 percent of the school's 1,350 students have some form of special need that is documented in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The school district (Volusia County) requires ESE students to be educated in "the least restrictive environment," principal Les Potter told Education World. To that end, each secondary school in the county has an administrator and secretary specifically assigned to Exceptional Student Education (ESE). Some larger schools even have their own ESE counselors. Consultative ESE teachers work with parents, the district office, teachers, and students. And all ESE teachers have their own laptop computers with programs that make creating and updating IEPs as easy as it can possibly be.

"Even our most profoundly handicapped students can be -- and are -- in mainstreamed classes," Potter said. "Our ESE teachers go into regular education classes with 8 to 10 special-needs students. They team-teach lessons with the regular classroom teacher and provide additional help to ESE students. Both groups of teachers work together for the benefit of all students."


Up the road at Doctors Inlet Elementary School in Middleburg, Florida, the most efficient way to handle ESE students is to put them all in a single class at each grade level. In that way, "we are able to assign 2 teachers -- a regular classroom teacher and a special education teacher -- to each class," said principal Larry Davis. "In the typical inclusion classroom, a teacher will conduct a content lesson, and then the students will go to an assigned group for follow-up instruction focusing on that group's special needs or learning strengths."

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Inclusion also is working well at Southdown Elementary School in Houma, Louisiana. "We have six special education teachers for 550 students; 110 of those students have been identified with special needs," said principal Betty Peltier. "Three of the special education teachers are assigned to self-contained classrooms for students -- mostly those classified as mildly, moderately, or severely retarded -- who are functioning two or more years below grade level. The other three teachers are assigned to inclusion classrooms; one is assigned to grades 1 and 2, one to grades 3 and 4, and one to grades 5 and 6."

The special education teachers focus on reading and math instruction, Peltier told Education World. Whenever possible, paraprofessionals support students' work in other subjects.

As is the case in many other schools, grouping together inclusion students is the most efficient use of personnel at Southdown. "That often translates into some classrooms having a larger numbers of inclusion students than others," Peltier said. For example, the third grade has 12 special-needs students. The most efficient approach was to group them in a single classroom, even though that created a class in which 12 of 18 students have special needs. In fourth grade, which has 20 special-needs students, each fourth-grade classroom was assigned 10 special students, so the inclusion teacher must split her time between both classes. As a result, the special education/inclusion teacher assigned to grades 3 and 4 spends roughly one-third of her time in each of three classrooms.

Due to schedules and other considerations, "if I divided the special-needs students into more classrooms, it couldn't work at all," Peltier noted.

"Inclusion for most of our special education students is working quite well," said principal Patricia Green of Cedar Heights Junior High School, Port Orchard, Washington. "The students take most of their classes in a general education environment.

"We've found that kids will rise to the level of expectations placed on them, and that behavior is often better when special ed kids are 'included' rather than isolated in a resource room where a collection of poor behaviors tends to surface.

"Whenever the number of special education students exceeds 12 in a basic education classroom, we assign a special education teacher or a paraprofessional to team with the basic education teacher. That additional resource person is good for all the students in the class, while ensuring that the specific IEP needs of the inclusion students are met."


Cedar Heights also has two "learning centers" centrally located in its main academic wings. Those centers are staffed with a special education teacher or paraprofessional, who is there to assist students with projects assigned in the regular education classrooms. "If students have difficulties -- academically or behaviorally -- they can opt to move to the learning center for a quieter environment and more individualized attention," Green explained. "We also offer 'resource room' classes for students whose skill levels in math or writing are in need of attention beyond what can be offered in a regular classroom."

Inclusion Tips

* How many special educators are on your staff? Determine the best way to organize their time. They should be available to provide assistance and support during each grade's literacy block (the time devoted to reading, language arts, and math instruction). That might require working students' "literacy block" schedules around the schedule of the special educators.
* Match special educators with classroom teachers whose management and teaching styles most closely complement their own.
* Encourage regular and special educators to take turns preparing and teaching lessons that include follow-up activities that appeal to two or three different learning styles or intelligences. Students might choose or be assigned to a particular activity.
* Set up a special "learning center" that special-needs students can go to for extra help or whenever they are feeling overwhelmed by an assignment or a project.
* Make sure inclusion of special students does not interfere with the education of the rest of the class; a special educator always should be present if the number of special students exceeds one-fourth of the class population.

"Inclusion works well as long as resources are available to support the general classroom teacher and safety nets are in place to 'catch' IEP students who might fall through the cracks.

"One more thing we need to be sure of is that, in addressing the needs of a special student or group, we do not interfere with the learning environment of those who do not have special category status."


Part of Marguerite McNeely's job is playing matchmaker. As principal at Alexandria (Louisiana) Magnet Middle School for Math and Science, McNeely puts much thought and energy into hiring special educators who are committed and trained to make inclusion work. As a former special education teacher, McNeely enjoys working with the special population and feels strongly about the types of individuals she hires to work with them. "The staff must be adaptable but consistent, strong but compassionate, and always understanding," she told Education World.

McNeely also puts energy into matching special educators with regular classroom teachers who will complement them: "The key is the people involved," she said. "Our staff works well with students and parents, and they work well together as a team."

McNeely says her motto is Expect a lot, get a lot, but in a nurturing environment. "The staff must understand and believe that all learners can learn; they simply learn in different fashions," she explained.

Enter an inclusion class at Alexandria and you would not notice many differences from any other class. "You would enter a classroom with several adults present, but the classroom would appear ordinary otherwise. There would be learning centers, group work Everyone would be engaged in learning."

All in all, McNeely added, inclusion is working very well. "We need to make some adjustments, but adaptation always is a big part of working with a special population."


Have you read these articles about inclusion from the Education World archive?

This Month's Contributors

The following five principals participated in this article:
  • Larry Davis, Doctors Inlet Elementary School, Middleburg, Florida
  • Dr. Patricia Green, Cedar Heights Junior High School, Port Orchard, Washington
  • Marguerite McNeely, Alexandria Magnet Middle School for Math and Science, Alexandria, Louisiana
  • Betty Peltier, Southdown Elementary School, Houma, Louisiana
  • Dr. Les Potter, Silver Sands Middle School, Port Orange, Florida