comscore Keeping students together is no easy task
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Keeping students together is no easy task

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    Jason Elento works on a science lesson in his Kaneohe home. His mother, Linda Elento, had fought the DOE for her son, now 9, to be included in a general-education classroom. Jason now goes to a public charter school where he attends class with general-education students a few days a week, then works at home or online the rest of the week, as do his peers.
    Jason Elento

It’s five minutes to lunch, but no one in classroom O-301 — freshman science at Campbell High — seems to be watching the clock. Students in small groups cluster around black lab tables, hunching over laptops or furiously finishing poster boards.

Zaricke Jackson is stationed at the head of the class, a formidable presence at first glance. He’s big, burly even, with a shaved head, a snug polo tucked into crisp shorts, a cell phone holstered on his hip. His shoulders are squared, his hands clasped behind his back. Then, Jackson smiles, and his boot camp instructor facade crumbles.

Jackson, you find, smiles a lot.

Nearby, Mark Buelow is making rounds from group to group, sometimes brusquely keeping kids on task, focusing in on those fooling around. Buelow is smaller than Jackson but fit and a little tough-looking. When it comes to this class, he’s the bad cop.

Or at least the disciplinarian.

Jackson and Buelow are two of 16 co-teachers in Campbell High’s full inclusion program, which keeps special-needs youth in general-education classes all school day.

Jackson is the special-education teacher, Buelow the science teacher, and they collaborate like "two parents," they say, to help a class of all kinds of learners, at all kinds of levels, get through their first year of high school science.

"We feed off each other’s strengths," said Jackson. "I’m a talker. He’ll keep me on time."

Co-teaching and full inclusion of special-needs youth are not new, but the two models are just starting to be seen in Hawaii public school classrooms, in part because of Campbell’s success.

Co-teaching is aimed at giving special-needs youth educational support while ensuring they are taught to a rigorous curriculum and able to interact more with peers. The model, which the state Department of Education plans to urge other schools to adopt, comes at a time when special-needs children are seeing no growth on state tests, and as special-education youth continue to test below their mainland peers.

Since moving to co-teaching and inclusion three years ago, Campbell High has seen double-digit gains in the percentage of special-needs youth testing on-target in math and reading. At the same time, test scores for general-education students have also continued to grow in both areas, school data show.

The Campbell model is garnering support as advocates and education officials worry about Hawaii’s lowest-in-the-nation rate for the time special-needs students spend in general-education classrooms. In 2008, 85 percent of Hawaii students with disabilities from 6 to 21 years old were pulled from general-education classes for one-fifth of their school day or more, compared with about 50 percent nationally, data reported to the U.S. Department of Education show.

Debra Farmer, administrator of the special-education section, said the department is trying to increase outreach to campuses and improve state-level monitoring to figure out why special-needs students, most of whom have mild learning disabilities or behavioral problems, are being taken out of general-education classes so frequently.

"We’re asking, ‘How did you make the decision about this child?’" she said, adding that part of the problem could be a lack of school-level support staff.

Parents are not always given the inclusion option, even if they support it. Linda Elento of Kaneohe wanted her son, Jason, in a general- education classroom when the rambunctious boy with Down syndrome was first starting school at 6.

Elento said Jason belonged in a kindergarten classroom because that is where he was developmentally. Her son’s school, Heeia Elementary, said Jason had to be in first grade and taught in a "fully self-contained" class separate from general-education students.

Elento said that the self-contained class was a small resource room, where kids were coming and going all day. "Basically, it was like a rotating room," she said. "There were three kids (including Jason) considered fully self-contained."

Elento added that Jason’s teachers or assistants would change throughout the day, depending who was there.

"It was whoever had their eyes open," she said. "They could pass the buck all day long."

Department officials could not comment on the case because of student privacy rights.

Elento, a strong supporter of including special-needs youth in general-education classrooms, said shortly after enrolling her son at Heeia, she pulled him out.

Now, at 9, Jason attends a public charter school, Hawaii Technology Academy, where, like other students at the campus, he goes to classes three days a week and works his way through online lessons the rest of the time. Elento said the setup is a good fit for her son.

Advocates say stories like Elento’s illustrate how moving more special-education kids into general-education classrooms will not be easy — or cheap — for many schools, and it could require big changes for some.

Schools that already have model programs for inclusion say the shift took lots of planning, the cooperation of teachers and plenty of patience especially during the transition, as classes adjusted to the change.

IDEA does not require that states meet inclusion minimums, but does require that special-education students be placed in the "least restrictive environment" appropriate for their learning needs. For some youth, especially those who pose a harm to themselves or others, the least restrictive environment is a classroom separate from other kids.

What is touchy is determining how often youth with fewer needs should be pulled from classrooms. Some say tailored instruction for special-needs youth outside of general-education environments can be beneficial, taking away distractions and letting special-education students learn without becoming frustrated if they are far behind.

Others argue that special-education youth should be eased into general-education classrooms, depending on their strengths and weaknesses. Still others say "full inclusion" offers more rigorous teaching and that with the right teachers and training, it can work.

At Campbell, moving to inclusion and co-teaching was not easy.

"It was a total shift in thinking," said Alisa Bender, school vice principal. "Before we started, virtually all students were taken out of class during part or all of the school day."

There are about 270 special-education youth at Campbell. Today about 210 are in general-education classrooms all day.

Back in room O-301, freshman science, the ratio of special-education to general-education youth is 1-to-3. Most co-teaching classrooms have a similar ratio, and — as a carrot to co-teachers — class sizes are also slightly smaller than the average 40-plus.

A few minutes before the bell, Jackson stands up on a stool, one foot on a lab table. He yells to get the attention of his students. "Eyeballs!" he shouts. Eyes toward him. The class quiets and Jackson tells them to start packing up.

Good job, he adds. Buelow, standing nearby, nods.

After the kids have cleared out, Buelow says teaching special- and general-education students together is rewarding, especially when the students — all students — start grasping concepts. "It would be a shame," he adds, "to take the kids with learning disabilities and stick them in a small room again."


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