Islands in the Mainstream

Broward schools are determined not to separate disabled students from the general population. But how do you teach inclusion?

In a conference room buried deep amid the sprawling halls and cubicles of Ely High School in Pompano Beach, a recent discussion of the proper role of education in a child's life is beginning to fray around the edges. Spurred perhaps by the continual blatting of the fax machine in the corner or the absence of air conditioning in the sweltering room, tempers are beginning to rise. "This is no joke," warns Nicol Shulman, whose seventeen-year-old daughter Rachel is a senior at Ely. "I am really upset about it."

Shulman's complaint is a rare one. Her daughter, she says, has no friends among her classmates. "Rachel's been in this school for two-and-a-half years, and she doesn't have anyone she goes to lunch with!"

At this a previously silent teacher sitting in a corner of the room pipes up in disbelief. She's had Rachel in one of her classes for months, she says, "and let me tell you, Rachel socializes quite a bit...." Before the teacher can finish her thought, however, she's interrupted by a mother whose blood is up. "She doesn't know a soul! She doesn't know one person's name! Come on, lady!"

Still the teacher persists. "I'm saying that in my classroom she socializes. They sit at a table together, they work together, and she's talking among her peers -- now, what she does at lunchtime...."

For the second time, she fails to complete her sentence. Nicol Shulman has heard this line before, and her immediate response is to unleash a torrent of frustration: "She walks to lunch on her own and sits by herself on her own! Listen to me: A relationship in a high school means that somebody calls somebody. If this doesn't happen, she's not socializing! It's all just 'Hi Rachel! Hi Rachel!' but it doesn't go any further!"

As the bitter words swirl through the room, Rachel fidgets nervously in her seat at the long conference table. She squirms and twists. She peeks into her backpack. She pulls a hair tie from her wrist and tugs her mop of frizzy rust-brown hair back into a short ponytail.

Finally, reluctantly, Rachel thrusts herself into the argument. Leaning toward her mother, she whispers, "I do have friends, Mom." But when asked by her mother to name one classmate, the heavy-set girl in the Florida State sweatshirt cannot do it. "I know some of them," she says softly.

New ideas often hold hidden surprises when they're finally put into practice. The new idea called inclusion is no exception. Inclusion is the belief that children with disabilities are better off integrated into the regular student population than segregated into their own educational worlds. As inclusion (it is also called mainstreaming) has gained ground over the last three years, it has put more and more students like Rachel into regular classrooms.

And here in Broward County, it's also causing some school officials to wonder whether angry, strong-willed parents such as Nicol Shulman are running the system into the ground by demanding more than the schools can possibly provide.

Rachel seems a perfect candidate for inclusion. Although she has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that has rendered her mildly retarded and left her with a speech impediment, she can read, write, add, and subtract, and she has never been disruptive. But she has a problem grasping abstracts, and her trouble with locution makes it difficult for those who don't know her well to understand what she's saying. She finds the social dance of making teenage friends stressful and difficult.

So in the sense of her class schedule, Rachel Shulman is squarely in the mainstream, but in other ways, she's very much still an outsider. Her parents blame the school. They say officials at Ely are not interested in helping Rachel ease into new situations, make friends, fit in, and feel comfortable.

That's why they've come to Ely on this Tuesday afternoon in mid-December, to sit down with Rachel's teachers and come up with a plan that will help her develop the social skills she'll need in the real world that awaits her after high school.

But the meeting has quickly degenerated into a miasma of mutual accusations and ill will. School officials are not enthused by Nicol Shulman's suggestion that the school help her daughter learn social skills by assigning a student or a group of students to sit and talk with her during lunch. Actually, the school tried this once, last year. A month into the scheme, when the school asked Rachel's assigned lunchmates for a report, they "stated she was not very social, but still sitting with them," according to a school document provided by the Shulmans.

As Grace MacDonald, an official with Broward County Public Schools, explains to the Shulmans in a sprightly tone, "If no one wants to have lunch with you because they'd rather have lunch with somebody else, then you're out of luck for lunch."

Inclusion holds that children with mental or emotional disabilities -- just like so-called normal children -- develop and learn best when placed in regular classrooms alongside a random assortment of other kids. Over the past five years, inclusion has been embraced by more and more school districts around the country. And, in fact, the concept is no longer merely a growing trend; it's the law. This past summer Congress passed a reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 1988, one of the landmarks on the road to greater inclusion. For the first time, the reauthorized bill specifically provides that every child has the right to "a free and appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive" environment possible.

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