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This article is part of Sociecity Youth on Assignment, a program where Sociecity Editors work with high school students and their teachers to help students create articles that bring to light real, challenging social issues affecting their lives. [/box]
by Alycia McGeever, Natalie Lazzeroni, Yajaira Acosta and Megan Schnabel
Gunderson High School, San Jose, USA
Photo: Alycia McGeever, Sociecity
Every child is considered unique, and every child is said to deserve an education. But in some cases, children are more unique than others and deserve extra attention. Children with special needs such as downs syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy, along with other mental and physical disabilities present an issue over how they fit into the American education system.
Children with special needs were not always included in public education.
Before the 1960’s, mentally and physically handicapped children had no other choice but to be home schooled by their parents or a very expensive tutor. It wasn’t until President Kennedy created the President’s Panel of Mental Retardation, and Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 that the first major steps were made in expanding the access to public education for special needs children.
Today, there are laws protecting these children, their parents and their right to education. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees all children with disabilities a free and appropriate public education. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against families with special needs children, and requires that care providers and teachers make necessary accommodations for that child. Section 504 of the ADA also requires that schools provide special needs children with reasonable accommodations they may need. These children are now getting the education they deserve, however, in most cases it is nowhere near the same as the average student.
Before the 1960’s, mentally and physically handicapped children had no other choice but to be home schooled by their parents or a very expensive tutor.
The question is: is this system of inclusion — or lack of inclusion — an act of neglect on behalf of the schools, or is it the best way to treat these special education students? For this topic there are many points of views to think about – from the teachers, both special and regular ed, to the students, the aids, and even their parents. Gerson Castro, a ninth and eleventh grade history teacher, told us that there are three things to think about “the teachers, the student and the classroom.” High school photography teacher, Mary Cheung says that the overall feeling of integrating special needs students in mainstream classes from teachers “is not realistic, but idealistic.”
Teachers, and people in general, believe integrating special education students would be great, but there’s no possible way the teachers or students could meet their needs. The teachers would have to teach to the “lowest common denominator” and slow down the whole class. The students can not afford to do that.
Even parents believe students should not be integrated in mainstream classes.Laura McGeever, a mother of a twenty-two year old son with cerebral palsy, believes that students should be integrated more through elementary and middle school rather than high school where there’s a larger student to teacher ratio.
Photo: Megan Schnabel, Sociecity
Special education classes — usually small numbers of students — have curriculum much different than regular classes. A special education middle school teacher, Tirini Shresthra, shared with us her routine. She focuses on reading, writing and math; basic skills needed in order to survive in the outside world, like telling time. She teaches her students with varying mental disabilities “depending on their [academic] level.”
In a high school within the San Jose Unified School District, the students are taught basic life and independent living skills such as cooking and money management; they are given classroom jobs, along with lessons in reading and math.
These students may not be included in mainstream academic classes, they are, however included in elective courses. Many of the students in these classes take elective courses such as PE, art and woodshop. These classes allow special education students to interact with others and get out of the environment of a special needs class. Many teachers and parents, like Shawn Gardere, a high school special ed teacher, think this type of inclusion — social rather than academic — is not only much more achievable, but “very important” in the development of special needs students.
Social exposure and inclusion allows special education students to interact with other students and feel like a part of the school.
Making these students feel included and “as normal as possible” is a major goal for teachers and parents.
“I encourage them to play with other students outside the classroom,” Tirini Shrestha told us. This social interaction is a learning experience in itself; exposing special needs children to this environment teaches them how to act with others and in public places and everyday situations.
They learn to make new friends and they feel included, while giving them that independence. “They go out to lunch by themselves,” Gardere told us, “this school is very… inclusive…we don’t have many issues.” Gerson Castro, Gardere’s colleague at the high school, claimed that other students would “stand up for [special needs students],” and that there are very few incidents of teasing or bullying. “It simply isn’t tolerated,” Castro says.
Photo: Natalie Lazzeroni, Sociecity
Being exposed to a good environment gives these students that interaction they need, so they don’t feel isolated from the rest of the school. Even if they aren’t included academically, they still feel a part of something. That, for mothers like Rhonda Schnabel, is one of the most important things for these children. The term special education is not a demand for isolation or a derogatory phrase meant to be feared, it “simply means they need special services.”
These students are not outsiders, Schnabel says, they need to be included one way or another, because “they’re people, just like us.”
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