Monday, April 21, 2008

I Like to Dream....

Much as I try to avoid it, there are times when I'm stuck driving on the highways during morning rush hour, driving to another school in the greater Boston area. I look around and can't help but notice the mini-vans with the "School Bus" signs, with kids being transported from their home towns to out-of-district placements.

They deal with the traffic nightmare daily, just to get to school. What impact does this have on kids, this long drive to school? What message are they getting from this daily routine that lengthens their school day? Is this reality maximizing student achievement?

Do you notice the kids in the vans? Do you wonder about the impact this has on their lives?

Or, do you just look the other way?

I can't look the other way. Instead, I have to ask, are we doing all we can to ensure student success in the least restrictive environment? Are we building in the supports that allow students to remain in their home districts? (Do we know what those supports are?)

Out-of-district placement costs are exorbitant. And the transportation costs associated with these placements place additional burdens on districts. (I will grant that some placements are necessary for some students).

But, what could we do with that money if we kept it in district?

Could we offer the best inclusion programs in the area? Could we identify the factors that will promote success considering the unique needs of our students? Could we hire the best special educators who understand UDL, differentiated instruction and learning style differences? Would it be possible to build a welcoming, inclusive community that supports all learners? Could we purchase the assistive technology that levels the playing field for all learners? Would we be able to provide the necessary professional support to ensure the effective and seamless integration of technology throughout the day?

Is this achievable or just a dream? After all, I do like to dream....

Do you?

photo credit -


Emano said...

Thought provoking post. I teach special ed in a substantially separate classroom in a public high school. Two thoughts it brought to mind: 1)I actually had a student in my class once whose mom *fought* to have him transported to a school an hour away claiming that we weren't meeting her son's needs. (He ended up hating it there and only attended there one year). 2)I used to work at private special ed schools, and know how much it costs to send a student to one. If the school hired a 1-1 tutor for the child at $75K they'd be better off financially and could keep the student in district. (Not that that is always an appropriate solution.)

Anonymous said...

Karen, after living the success of your dream, I have chosen a path of both study and of practice, so that I can be in a position of working both top down and bottom up. We will change this in Massachusetts, but it will take a concerted effort.

I believe that the two key links are simply good teaching and also leveraging the best new learning technologies in the world.

The bottom line is that we care about and love the children and individuals we serve and while there is a place for specialized schools, it is often a replacement for good teaching and a culture of inclusion.

Truly to do it "better" is no small feat, but takes the commitment of many, for many years, but I am all in and I know of others who feel the same.



narrator said...

The only way to make special education better is to make regular education much, much better. Regular education should be able to include, and foster success and independence for, perhaps 98% of students.

The problem is how different regular education would have to look to function that way, and how little interest there actually is in government or the education community in making those kinds of changes.

pporto said...

Well said narrator. As a special educator working to bring UDL, RTI, AT/IT (plus a whole host of other acronyms) and school improvement efforts together, and as a parent of students in regular ed (and seeing the lack of technology and differentiated instruction), that is the challenge. Special education and regular education can't exist in separate worlds anymore.

Kate said...


Hi, Karen, what a great thought provoking post.

First I want to point out that many of the students on the special busses are headed to or coming from their neighborhood school. For them this is an issue of inclusive busing being needing to be thought as important as inclusive education. Park at the wheelchair accessible door of a public school some morning and watch these busses arrive. They are not all going out of district.

Next I want to point out the spectrum of "out of district" placements. An out of district placement can be anything from placement in a public school in another community via "tuitioning out" because that district has a better special educaiton program to meet that students needs or it may be a collaborative program where many district pool funds to education students with the lowest incident disabilities. Alternatively it may be a totally private school with no public school affiliation, such as a 766 approved school, a hospital school, a school for the blind and/or Deaf or a school for learning disabilities and/or students with emotional or behavioral disorders.

As a teacher in a collaborative setting who has all of her students arrive on a "special bus" every day I have many feelings about this topic. My students are typical of many students who are "tuitioned out", in collaborative setting, in special day schools or hospital settings. I believe with all of my heart that my students are best served in an intensive special education classroom that is located in a public high school. That classroom might be provided by a neighborhood school, be tuitioned or be part of a collaborative. My students deserve not only a community of "typical peers" but also a community of friends who live and understand what it is like to have severe or multiple disabilities. At some point, usually during middle school, the friends of my students stop being friends and start being "volunteers". These students deserve friends and, just like us, they are likely to choose friends that have something in common with them, such as similar disabilities.

All of my students, especially those the newest to my classroom did terribly in "inclusion", in district placements. I have one student who, while in inclusion, learned to read some sight words and to count, but at age sixteen was unable to feed himself. There was no reason for this except that his inclusion setting focused on academic skills and did not offer the life skills or therapies this student needed to be able to provide this very basic self-care.

I have had another "fully included" teenager arrive in my "substantially separate", out-of-district placement not toilet trained only to have the teenager toilet trained within four months of entering my classroom.

This is part of the reality of "inclusion", in district placements. Some (not all) inclusive settings focus not on what individuals with severe disabilities need to be independent, but on standards based academics only. Many public school automatically stop OT, PT and Speech Therapy in the third or fourth grade, when these students need these services for much longer than that.

Additionally in public schools general education or resource room teachers are often suddenly expected to have the skills to oversea the education of a student with severe or multiple needs. This is flat out not fair to the student (or the teacher). I understand there is a teacher shortage across the board, and especially in special education, but our students with the most severe disabilities deserve teachers who are trained and certified to teach them. This means a degree and a teaching certificate in intensive or severe/profound disabilities. The expectations in a program that educates teachers of learners with intensive special needs are very, very different from that of general education or resource room teachers.

In twelve years teaching intensive special needs in Massachusetts I have seen public school advertisements to hire intensive special needs teachers less than five times.

If public school want to "do inclusion right" they have to realize it will cost MORE not less. It will cost to have a specially certified teacher, to provided OT, PT, SLP, Assistive Tech, Orientation and Mobility, nursing and a teacher of the deaf/hearing impaired and teacher of the blind services. It will cost to buy assistive technology, augmentative communication devices, specialized software, positioning equipment and more. It will cost to upgrade regular school busses with wheelchair lifts and ties downs.

Paying a 1:1 tutor may technically be "least restrictive enviroment" and be cheaper than out of district placement, but it denies students what they need to succeed. In essence it is a cop out, it teaches students they are so different they need to be constantly shadowed by an adult and creates situations of learned helplessness.

In the long run it is also far more expensive. Imagine either of the students I describe above staying in public education and never coming to my classroom. That would mean after age 22 the individual would need part or full time personal care assistance for feeding or for diaper changing for their entire life time! The cost of that is mind boggling. I am happy to know that my tax dollars are paying to educate these students in substantially separate settings now so that I will not be paying for their total care in a few years.

I too have seen many parents fight to move students from the less restrictive program in our collaborative to a more restrictive private special needs school. Although technically these students are going from one out of district placement to another the reality is that these students are increasing not only the restrictiveness of the placement but also the level of service. This increase in level of service is often justified and needed. Not because the student needs more than could be provided in a collaborative setting, but because our setting is unwilling or unable to provide the services. In one case I can think of the student needed more intensive, specialized vocational training than the public school or local collaborative setting was willing to offer. In another situation, it is sad to say that the parents were seeking only a qualified teacher, as one teacher their severely disabled son had was on waiver and another year only certified in moderate special needs.

Reforming our system to bring out of district students home is the right thing to do, but it will require totally restructuring general and special education, and working to make sure we have plenty of teachers and therapists available to fill the many positions that should be created for intensive special needs teachers, OTs, PTs, SLPs, ABA specialists, COMS, TVIs and more. It will be expensive, and it should be, because our students deserve it.

marianne said...

I greet these students every morning, teach them throughout the day and send them home again, often a trip that is as much as 1 hour long. All of my students are from out of district to attend my self-contained classroom in a public school setting. Could these students attend their own schools? Certainly. But today? No. We have only begun to touch upon what these students need to access the curriculum. We have only begun to educate our educator's of the technology and research that is available for these students to succeed. I too am all in and will continue to dream a dream of all students learning together.

Karen Janowski said...

Thank you all for your thought provoking comments as well. What we are all taking about is major change to public education as we know it and a reallocation of resources.
We are talking about putting the "I" back in INDIVIDUALIZED Education program and that means that some students will continue to require the types of programs that Kate and Marianne are involved with.
Kate raises an important point about students having a "community of friends" with similar special needs. This is an essential point to consider and I wonder if it's possible to develop extracurricular activities that provide this opportunity in home towns?
I think the current model of segregation by severe disability needs to be reevaluated. I do appreciate the fact that there are some students who require the kind of highly specialized, skilled classroom instruction that Kate and Marianne provide. But there are other students who could be returned to a less restrictive environment, IF there was a prioritized effort to offer the best inclusion programs with highly skilled staff.
Do we really need out of district placements for students with learning or cognitive disabilities? What can we do better?

Anonymous said...

Just food for thought: there are over 250,000 students in Broward County in Florida and over 38,000 teachers. Much different than where we are from, my fellow north shore friends.

loonyhiker said...

Karen: I'm a little behind in reading all my blogs but this one really hit home. My district was one of the largest in the state (SC)and many of my special ed students rode a bus for long distances within the same school district. I never understood the rhyme or reason since my program is offered at every high school in the district. Yet, they would bus one student for 45 minutes to my school when the nearest school was about 5 minutes from his home. Needless to say, there were behavior problems by the time the student arrived and usually he was not in the mood for any kind of learning. I know many years ago we used busing as a way to integrate the schools, but haven't we gotten beyond that now? Why can't we do neighborhood schools and save gas money as well as wear and tear on the buses? If the schools are subpar, then use the saved money to make them get up to standard. I also think if we had neighborhood schools, parents would be more involved and be more accessible to the schools. It seems like the districts are not looking at what is in the best interest of the students anymore and if they did, they might realize it could actually save the district tons of money too. Sorry for raving and ranting.

Karen Janowski said...

Thank you all for contributing your thoughts to this post. This is another one of those issues that needs to be evaluated by administrators who truly care about the best interests of children. We need to keep the "I" in IEP and there are many students who are best educated in out-of-district placements. But, there are many who could return to their neighborhood schools with excellent support (the financial savings between cost of placement and cost of transportation could allow for excellent services).
This is an issue that I do not see anyone speaking about on a local, state or national level. Do we accept it as a necessary reality in special education?