In school districts in Oak Park and River Forest, inclusion in the classroom starts with the youngest students and continues through high school. From co-taught classrooms, which include a general education teacher and a special education teacher, to blended classrooms, in which one teacher is trained to cover a class in both general education and special education, local special education directors say that research shows all students can benefit from classrooms which include students of differing abilities.
Donna Middleton, senior director of student services in Oak Park’s District 97 public elementary schools, says the district begins providing inclusive programming at the earliest stages of a child’s education.
Two models are employed in early childhood classes in Oak Park. Whittier’s pre-school program is what she calls a blended program. Students with IEPs (Individual Education Plans) are in class with students who do not have IEPs. At Whittier, the class is taught by one teacher who is a specialist in early childhood education, special education, and English Language Learners. Currently, the Whittier program has two sections — morning and afternoon, each with roughly 15 students. In those classes of three and four-year-olds, five of the children will have an IEP and the remaining 10 will not.
In the Early Childhood PKP program at Longfellow, the district has a co-taught classroom of approximately 20 students. Roughly six of those students have an IEP, and the remaining 14 do not. The class is co-taught by two teachers: a general education teacher and a special education teacher.
In the elementary grades, District 97 recently piloted a co-teaching program. At Whittier, the co-teaching program runs the full continuum of grades from kindergarten through fifth grades. At Beye, first and second grades have co-taught classrooms. Middleton says, “We’re moving into our third year of implementation, and we hope to increase the amount of elementary co-teaching classrooms to more of our schools.”
At the middle school level, co-teaching has been a part of the curriculum for many years. Middleton said math and language arts co-taught sections are offered at all three grade levels. If a student has an IEP, the class placement decision is made at the IEP meeting that
parents have with school staff and is based on the individual needs of the student.
“Feedback from parents of students in the co-taught settings has been positive,” said Middleton. “This is true for parents of children with a disability or without. We are fortunate that our community values inclusion and changing discriminatory attitudes. As a staff, we have been collecting data through various methods to ensure our students are making growth and feel a sense of belonging.”
Beyond the academic curriculum, Middleton says the district works on inclusion through activities such as Best Buddies, Special Olympics and piloting the Nora Project. She describes the Nora Project as similar to Best Buddies but for younger students. “In the early grades, they work on friendships and developing empathy.”
In River Forest’s District 90 elementary schools, inclusion classrooms also start at preschool. Denise Matthews, special education director, the district’s Willard School has a morning and afternoon preschool class that are taught by one teacher, with dual certifications in general education and special education, and there are two aides also in the classroom. The classes are made up of students with and without IEPs and conform to state guidelines that no more than 30 percent of the students in the class will have an IEP.
“It is the best practice model for students with IEPs to be with general education peers with push-in services,” said Matthews.
For elementary school children in grades kindergarten and beyond, Matthews says the district employs a number of methods of making sure all children are included. “We strive to have students in the least restrictive environment. One of the things we’re most proud of is that we’re not creating isolating situations for our students.”
Some of the methods used at the elementary level in District 90 include push-in supports in which specialists come into the general classroom, and the district also uses pull-outs when students require one-on-one supports. Classroom aides are also employed and can help students facilitate relationship building or participation in the classroom.
Matthews says the district strives to make a case-by-case determination about what is best for each child. “In special education, there’s no one size fits all. We are constantly making adjustments to what our students need. One constant is that we’re always looking for ways for students to be included, not just in the classroom but throughout the school community as well.”
At Roosevelt Junior High, Matthews says some students with IEPs are in general education classrooms for the majority of the day, while some students cannot do that. “If a student cannot be in the general education classroom all day, we’re always looking for ways for students to be engaged and included with their peers, whether that’s through homeroom or music class or another outlet.”
The district offers co-taught classes at the junior high level in the core content areas of reading, writing and math, and Matthews says opportunities for professional development in co-teaching models will be targeted this year.
Both Matthews and Middleton say that teachers and staff in the junior highs, work to prepare students for high school.