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Special-Needs Students To Mix In

Fall Classes Open To `Mainstreaming'

July 3, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

When students return to Hartford's schools in September, thousands will find new classmates beside them as the district moves to integrate students previously assigned to self-contained special education classrooms into regular education classes.

The process, referred to as "mainstreaming," comes four years after the state settled a lawsuit brought by a West Hartford parent who wanted his son to be in classes with students who didn't have disabilities. The case, P.J. vs. State of Connecticut, was filed 10 years before the June 2001 settlement and requires the state to support local school districts and to monitor compliance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act - a law that requires schools to educate students with disabilities in the least restrictive environments.

"It's about doing what's right for all students," said Romain Dallemand, the city's new assistant superintendent for special education, who says he is making compliance a priority in the city.

Currently, students who are mentally retarded and those with speech and language, hearing, emotional and behavioral and other disabilities are bused around the district to attend special programs. The new plan calls for returning all of these students - more than 1,000 children - to their neighborhood schools. The return to neighborhood schools has the added benefit of helping children make friends near home so they'll have people to play with on the weekends, Dallemand said.

A school-by-school review of transfers shows some schools will end up with higher numbers of special education students and some will have fewer or the same number. At Betances Elementary School, for example, 32 of the school's 58 special education students will move out and 32 different children will transfer into the school. Hartford Public High School will lose 57 of its 251 special education students, but 158 new students will transfer in and blend into the regular classrooms.

Cathy Carpino, president of the teachers' union, has warned school board members and Superintendent of Schools Robert Henry that regular education teachers, particularly new teachers, will need a lot of training to integrate students with disabilities into their classes.

Dallemand said teachers will receive additional training.

Children's advocates outside the district lauded school officials for making the shift, but they cautioned that the pace of the change could make all the difference in its success.

"I'm very supportive of this idea," said state Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein, who has strongly objected to one of the district's special education programs called Reach, which segregates youngsters with extreme behavioral problems. "But I caution that it needs to be done in a very organized and thoughtful way so the programs are in place and the supports are in place."

The Reach program for elementary school children, which buses elementary-aged children from around the city, and its companion program in the middle schools, called Tops, will be eliminated. "If we want students to learn to behave properly, we have to put them in a setting where they can learn," Dallemand said. "They cannot learn what they have never had an experience to see."

Martha Stone, executive director of the Center for Children's Advocacy at the University of Connecticut law school, represents some of the children who will be integrated into the mainstream classrooms. She, like Milstein, said she is glad to see the district moving toward integration but said the plan should be phased in. The abrupt change, Stone said, does not leave time for teams of educators and parents to convene and create new individualized plans for each student.

"I think it should just slow down," Stone said. "Some of the schools are so huge and a lot of the kids in special education programs have trouble coping with huge schools and they have a lot of needs. It takes a lot of careful planning."

Dallemand said the district does have experience blending special education students with the general population. He points to SAND Elementary School, where Principal Cecelia J. Green integrated her kindergarten and fifth- and sixth-grade classes this past year. The blended kindergarten class was taught by a special education and a regular education teacher. In the upper grades, a special education teacher moved between classrooms to work closely with teachers.

Elnora Lockwood, grandmother of a sixth-grader who was integrated into one of the SAND classes, said she was initially worried that he would not receive the attention he needed. But she said she was delighted that the move improved his self-esteem and attitude toward school.

"He feels like he is a part now. He likes going to school. Before ... he was isolated," she said.

Kindergarten teacher Emery Tapley, who has 31 years of experience, said that some parents of his non-disabled students were initially concerned about the integration, so he invited them to observe the class. The parents could identify just two of seven special education students, he said. Academic tests showed that his class kept up with other classes, he said, and that in some cases, such as math, the special education students outperformed the regular education students.

"This was the best experience of my life," Tapley said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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