PENDLETON – As the 25 students in the eighth-grade history class at Pendleton Heights Middle School prepare their arguments for a debate on Andrew Jackson’s presidency, special education teacher Lynn Griffey-Ennis stops to check on two students at the back of the room.
“Sometimes, these students need sensory breaks. It can get a little overwhelming for them,” Principal Daniel Joyce explained.
Griffey-Ennis is one of three adults, including student teacher Michael Fenters, who leads the class, and an aide, who guide the students in the class that includes regular education and two levels of special needs students with individual education plans.
Like most modern school districts, South Madison Community Schools seeks to create the least restrictive environment for special needs students, in most instances creating inclusion classrooms that put them in the learning settings of regular education students.
The configuration of the classrooms, which often are led by a content specialist and supported by special education teachers and aides, are determined by Joyce with the helps of teachers.
“I make that determination based on the number of IEPs,” he said.
IEPs are developed by case conference committees made up of students, parents, educators and sometimes specialists in areas such as speech, physical therapy or autism. An IEP may contain a variety of special accommodations, including removal from a classroom if a student becomes agitated, reteaching of materials for those who have trouble grasping it the first time or a reduced amount of work, say, writing four paragraphs instead of five.
“They accommodate for the child that’s struggling,” Joyce said.
An educator since 1980, Joyce said he has seen an increase over the years in the number of students who have individual education plans. Sometimes, he said, it’s just for a temporary disability.
Up to 30 percent of his school’s population has an IEP, Joyce said.
“We do have a higher percentage now than we used to have,” he said. Much of that he attributes to changes in the law that have made students who would not have qualified for an IEP in the past eligible now.
In the past, students with special needs typically were placed in self-contained classrooms.
“They weren’t made to feel a part of the school,” he said.
The advantages aren’t only for the special needs students, Joyce said. Regular education students exposed to special needs students develop the empathy they will need when they enter the world of work where they will be exposed to people from a variety of walks of life.
“It’s about empathy as much as anything,” he said. “It helps their typical peers in their understanding.”
Eighth-grade history teacher Mike Wallis agreed. In most instances, he said, gifted students are self-contained in elementary school and are not exposed to special needs students until middle school.
“If you separated them, they would never get to know each other,” he said. “They get out in the real world, and it’s kind of shocking to them.”
Wallis said often the special needs students are quite capable of absorbing the knowledge he tries to share.
Frankton-Lapel Community Schools Superintendent Bobby Fields is a supporter of inclusion classrooms.
“That’s what everybody should be shooting for. We’re supposed to include them in the regular classroom,” he said.
The beauty of an IEP, he said, is that it recognizes both the student’s strengths and weaknesses.
“If he’s well above average in his language arts and math, he should be in a regular ed classroom,” he said.
The state also encourages mainstreaming through its accountability matrix, Fields said. In general, he said, special needs students are held to the same standards as regular education students.
An exception is allowed for about 1 percent of a district’s population, which is allowed to take an alternative test, Fields said.
“If you have more than that, the rest have to take the regular test, and it’s held against your school,” he said.
But not everyone believes mainstreaming is in the best interests of all special needs students.
Frankton-Lapel parent Amber LeJeune-Kanzler is the mother of a boy with autism and believes the mainstream classroom he’s in doesn’t really meet his needs.
“He doesn’t learn the same way that neurotypical children learn. Things are very distracting for them. Like the other children playing and laughing, the clock ticking is sensory overload for them,” she said.
LeJeune-Kanzler said Eastside Elementary School, where her son was a student until earlier this school year, does it right. The Anderson school has a classroom just for autistic children.
“Their goal is to teach him to be in an inclusion classroom without feeling inadequate because he’s different from other children,” she said.
The end goal, LeJeune-Kanzler said, should be to prepare all students to transition into a regular education classroom.
“I do believe in inclusion eventually,” she said. “If a child is struggling, they should offer separated classes to prepare them for inclusion.”