In April, Erika Eckart, the mother of an Irving School student who has autism and speech delay, wrote a letter to Wednesday Journal touting the benefits of placing him in a general education classroom. 

“Research shows that children with disabilities placed primarily in general education classes have more rigorous IEP goals and thus better outcomes in the short and long term,” Eckart wrote. 

“Our son’s inclusion has been a major factor in the amazing progress he has made in the last four years,” she added. “He went from mostly non-verbal to speaking now in 8- to 10-word sentences. He can mostly perform at grade level with modified work. He is a real part of the fabric of his class and of the Irving community. We are so thankful that District 97 has and continues to include him. It has changed the trajectory of his entire life.” 

Over the last several years at Oak Park Elementary School District 97 and Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200, there have been major strides among officials to be more sensitive to the needs of students like Eckart’s son. 

After implementing co-teaching pilot programs at Percy Julian and Gwendolyn Brooks Middle Schools in 2013, that program is now a permanent fixture in the schools. This is now the third year of a co-teaching pilot in the elementary schools which began at Irving and Whittier elementary schools. Similar efforts began at Beye two years ago. 

Donna Middleton, senior director of student services, said in addition to growing the program at Beye the district is planning an expansion at either Longfellow or Lincoln. “Our priority is to bring co-teaching to our schools where we have self contained special education classrooms,” said Middleton.  

Eboney Lofton, D97’s chief academic and accountability officer, defines co-teaching as “an inclusive service delivery model that is really supported by federal and state law, but it’s also just instructional best practice. 

“We bring two individuals together — a general education and a special education teacher, both highly skilled professionals — and we really leverage their skills to make sure we understand the what and how of learning. They work in a synergistic marriage to make sure we’re instructing a diverse group of students.” 

In 2018, the percentage of students who receive special education services in a setting separate from the general student population for more than 60 percent of their school day ranged between roughly 10 and 11 percent, according to D97 data. The special education department’s goal, Lofton says, is for that number of separated students not to exceed 10 percent. 

Not only is co-teaching aligned with the Individuals with Disabilities Act, which requires that — “to the maximum extent appropriate” — students with disabilities are being educated in the regular school environment, but it’s also academically and emotionally beneficial for all students involved, D97 administrators and teachers say. 

“The students with unique needs are able to be with peers and adapt to more typical routines and learning experiences at a given grade level,” say District 97 teachers Annie Darley and McKenzie Kula, who comprise the 4th-grade co-teaching team at Whittier. Darley teaches general education while McKenzie teaches special education. The two co-teaching partners submitted a joint statement on the powers of the model to the Journal. 

“A co-taught classroom has the benefit of two teachers, and often even a teaching assistant, working to know each learner on any given level and to develop ways to meet the needs of students wherever they are. 

“All students are capable of deepening interactions with each other and benefitting from groups and interactions throughout the day that are inclusive and social. We see this in the respectful ways the kids treat each other in our room and allow students to be leaders and experts at something that others can see and appreciate.” 

Rachel Youngberg, one-half of the 6th-grade co-teaching team at Brooks, says that the model has contributed to a sense of cohesion among her students.

“I really believe the kids have no idea who necessarily receives special ed services and who doesn’t — I think they all feel we’re just one class,” says Youngberg, who partners with Pam Gaffney. “We’ve been able to work together to make things so accessible that it’s like no one knows why things are differentiated because everything is different for everybody. It’s whatever you need, whatever learning style you use best. It’s just become really natural and completely normal in here.”

Lauren Arends had been a special education teacher at OPRF for seven years before she was tapped to become the high school’s first inclusion facilitator. She says that her priority for this school year is to identify students in self-contained special education classes who are capable of transitioning into co-taught college prep courses and making that transition as smooth as possible.

“My role, in a nutshell, is to help students with disabilities be included in general education classrooms by adjusting or helping others adjust how they are taught and what they are taught,” she says. “I’m currently working with about 40 students identified as having the most significant needs, along with their teachers and the paraprofessionals that support them in general education classes.” 

For more info on D97’s co-teaching experience, watch the district’s YouTube video here: 

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