A Letter to Carolyn McIerney

Ms. McInerney,

I chose you as my change agent not only because you are the board representative for the Special Education Community Advisory Committee, but because you have been known to provide great leadership in legislative action. Since you have also been appointed to the California Commission for Teaching Credentialing, I thought that you would be a great advocate for ensuring that all educators in the IUSD school district are well equipped to create an inclusive classroom environment for special needs students. It is my hope that you would be able to be the person to start the petition to make sure that all of the allocated government funding that is supposed to go to special education gets to the right programs and is not withheld from the districts, especially IUSD. Throughout this blog, I believe I have made my case that creating inclusive classroom environments for special needs students is crucial to their successful development, and that if schools had all of the funding that they are supposed to have, they would be able to develop programs and hire educators that would be able to make that happen. Ultimately, my hope is that by getting the attention of our governor by making him realize that this is a pressing issue, he will in turn get the attention of Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education. I think that the following video gives a good explanation of how important he feels the IDEA budget is to our country, and to our individual states as well. I hope that you will give serious consideration to this issue and it’s importance, because every student whether they have special needs or not, deserve the chance to succeed.

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Where is the Money?

According to the IDEA act created in 1975, the federal government will cover at least 40% of the extra costs of the inclusion of special need students into mainstream classrooms. However, according to the 2002 budget, the government has only covered about 18% of the extra costs, and each state has had control of the allocation of the rest of the funding. Not only do these programs need more funding so that they can have the resources to cater to special needs students, but school districts need it to pay for educators who are well qualified to teach special needs students, who are well educated on inclusive teaching practices, and who genuinely care about the success of their students. Those types of teachers are hard to find these days, because they are typically immediately hired into schools who have more than enough funding to pay them well, and they need to make a living after all. The more that these educators are trained in methods of inclusion, and the more that special needs students are included into mainstream classrooms, the easier it will be for districts to get the funding that they need, since it will be a lower number because of inclusion. According to an article on Special Education News in California, California and Wisconsin are both two states who are largely holding back funds that belong in special education programs. My question is, where is the money then? What is the remaining 22% going towards? To see specific information on where your money is supposed to be going click here.

costs of special education programs

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Because I worked with special needs children and students for so many years, I have had many different types of experiences along the way. I worked as a teacher aid at my high school for the special education department, so it was interesting to get to work with older students who were special needs as well in addition to working with the younger kids at ICEC. I feel so blessed to have met some of those kids, because they always put a smile on my face. One of my favorite students was named Michael. He was definitely the hit of the school, and knew almost everyone on campus. He always made a point to say hi to everyone that he knew, and give them a high five when he saw them. I loved working with Michael every day, because he always genuinely appreciated it when I helped him with something. He never gave up on anything that he did, and wouldn’t quit a project until he felt that he had done a good enough job. His work ethic astounded me, but it was also heartbreaking at times to watch him struggle. When he set his mind to a task, there were times when he would not let anyone help him. There were times when it was so hard to sit back and watch him struggle with something and get upset, but I knew it was for the best to let him do it himself. Other times however, he would let another student or myself help him, or would ask us questions if he didn’t understand something. It was always great to see him understand a concept, and to watch him work with other students who were more than willing to help. It is things like this that make me sure that inclusion is a good thing for these kids.

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I loved volunteering at the Intervention Center for Early Childhood (ICEC), because we got to work specifically with young special needs children who ranged from ages of 0 to about 6 years old. I love working with kids so this volunteer experience was especially fun for me. I think that one of my favorite parts about working with younger kids is that you can watch them develop and see how much progress they make over the course of a few years. It was always remarkable to me to see how quickly some of these kids grew and learned how to do new things. They were always so eager to learn and interact with all of us, and were always smiling and having a great time. That is probably one of my very favorite things about those kids; they are so innocent and genuinely happy, and they would never do anything to intentionally hurt someone. To me, they were the purest form of innocent and I adored them for that.
Sarah was one of the kids that I worked with almost every time I came in to volunteer. She was about 4 years old when I first met her, and the spunkiest little girl in the whole program. One year during the annual Christmas party, she decided that she wanted to meet more of the kids that came, who weren’t regulars in the program. She was particularly shy with people she didn’t know, so this was a huge step for her. She started by just sitting next to one of the little girls who came to the party while they decorated cookies, and shared frosting with her in an attempt to make a new friend. They finally started talking, and she convinced the girl to come with her to meet Santa. It was very rare that Sarah ever reached out to meet new people. Watching them play together and watching Sarah finally branch out and try to be more social was a very rewarding moment for me since I had spent so much time with her trying to get her to open up. It’s little moments like this one that always made working with these kids worth it.

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Peer Attitudes

Social acceptance has been proven to be an essential part of the integration process of special needs students into mainstream classrooms, and can be a determining factor in whether or not this process is successful or not. Many special needs students have reported that they feel a sense of prejudice from their mainstream counterparts, and have even reported cases of bullying in the past. Research has shown that these special needs students hold very negative opinions of themselves as learners (Griffiths, 2004), and this perhaps is translated onto how they feel that other students view them. After extensive research, educators have found that almost every problem that they have encountered between a mainstream pupil and their learning-disabled counter parts has stemmed from a lack of knowledge on both accounts-typically just a misunderstanding and a miscommunication. In fact, studies have shown that mainstream students don’t usually have bad opinions about special needs students at their school, they typically don’t have opinions about them at all since they don’t know them, and for the students who did know the special needs students at their school, they typically thought highly of their learning-disabled peers. In regards to their special needs peers, mainstream students often described them as “very friendly”, “happy”, or “he doesn’t really understand, but he is very nice”, showing that they had some understanding that these students were different than them, but they accepted them none-the-less. As much as being socially accepted can benefit special needs students by boosting their confidence in the classroom and on the playground, it can also be very detrimental to their success if they are rejected. Although most results showed that learning-disabled students were not intentionally rejected, when they felt that they were, their progress was significantly less and they tended to shut down in the classroom due to lack of confidence.
If school districts had the resources to develop programs to help integrate special needs students into mainstream classrooms, it could alleviate the majority of the confusion and misunderstandings between students. They could even set up a program/club in which mainstream students came in to special education classes to partner up with the students and be their “buddies”, and do activities with them outside the classroom as well. I think that having some sort of partnership buddy program would be very beneficial for both mainstream and special needs students, and could potentially be a lot of fun if schools had the funds for it. Even going to taco Tuesday or bowling, or something else inexpensive would be a great example of something that the school could do to integrate these kids socially.

peer acceptance is an integral part of social inclusion

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Teacher Attitudes

Research has shown that another major barrier for successful integration of special needs students into mainstream classrooms, is teacher attitudes. Negative teacher attitudes towards not only the special needs students, but the special education program itself can make it almost impossible for students to feel comfortable in a classroom setting. I think that educators need to go through extensive training that focuses specifically on how to create an inclusive classroom environment, because according to research, many of the issues stem from lack of knowledge of how to handle situations with these students. Although it’s hard to believe, there have been many cases of teachers bullying special needs students openly in the classroom. Below is a video of a teacher from New Jersey bullying a special need student in his class:

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What Educators Can Do

Research indicates that teaching methods play a prominent role in the success of inclusion of special needs students into mainstream classrooms. Teacher attitudes also contribute to the effectiveness of students’ inclusion, and can be the determining factor of whether or not they will flourish in the classroom. Recent development has shown that, “many young people with severe and profound and multiple learning disabilities remain quite isolated and unknown within their local communities” (Shelvin, 2003).
One particular example of teacher methods within classroom inclusivity is the watching of videos to implement social interaction within the mainstream students. This is a way for the students to become more comfortable and familiar with those who have disabilities and make it easier to interact with them in the classroom. Studies have shown that by implementing this video program, the mainstream students felt more comfortable to approach and interact with their learning-disabled counter parts. The mainstream students also expressed that they had a better understanding of what it meant to be learning-disabled, and how those students are actually not much different from themselves. This type of program was implemented into classrooms of younger students, particularly ages 6 to 11. Once students are in middle school or high school, they should already have an established understanding of how to interact with special needs students at their schools.
Another method that has been proven effective when including special needs students into mainstream classrooms has been group or partner activities. Many teachers tried pairing up mainstream students with learning-disabled students to work on activities in class. They worked on projects with each other, did team-bonding exercises and asked each other for help when they needed it. Because of this partnership, inclusion was not only found in the classroom, it was found on the play ground as well. The learning-disabled students felt more comfortable with the mainstream students in a learning environment and felt that they had built a relationship with these students, so they ended up being more comfortable with them socially as well. The mainstream students also felt more comfortable to include the learning-disabled students in their activities during lunch and recess because they already knew them, and they were no longer the “special needs” students who they only occasionally saw during lunch because they were separated all day long during classes.

one-on-one attention combined with group activities greatly impacts student improvement

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