First year at Ashe brings typical problems

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Integrating its primary-grade special education students into regular classrooms went smoothly. But there were only seven of them, and they mainly were learning disabled, notes Assistant Principal Bernia Womack.

Integrating the intermediate-grade children has been a different story.

“Many of these students have emotional and behavioral disorders,” says Womack. “And not only do these kids have disabilities, they are also struggling with issues like peer pressure and gang recruitment. This is a rough time emotionally, and they display disruptive behavior in the classroom more than any other group. They are also our largest group.

“We have teachers who are trained to work with them,” she adds, “but it’s been trying even for them.”

By the end of the school year, 35 intermediate-grade children had been integrated into regular classrooms. Five 4th-graders remained in a self-contained class, joining regular students for gym, music and library. “We always try. I give students a semester to try the program, and then you can pretty much tell if they are making it or not,” says Womack.

Womack says that regular and special education teachers are still learning how to teach together and to teach mixed groups of students.

“We have good teachers,” she says. “But this school has a lot of veterans, and there was a lot of ‘This is my classroom, and these are my kids.’ We’ve had to get the general education teachers in the mind set that special education students are theirs, too, and that they don’t just belong to special education teachers.”

Further, says Womack, “Some of the special ed teachers would comment, ‘I’m just here for the special ed kids.’ We had to tell them, You’re in that classroom for any child that needs help. So both groups of teachers had issues.”

Says Donna Freeman, an upper-grade resource teacher for students with learning disabilities: “I think one of our biggest challenges has been to get teachers to buy into the inclusion program and see special education kids as students first, then look at their special needs.”

Ashe also lost two of its special education teachers. One left at the end of last school year because she was uncomfortable with team teaching and preferred a self-contained classroom, says Womack. The other initially supported the inclusion program but left when it was time to implement it.

Meanwhile, the school decided it needed outside help for some students. PSI Services Inc., a group of licensed clinical psychologists, provides a 10-week program dealing with anger management, self-esteem, conflict resolution and social skills. It costs $6,000, which poses a problem for when Education Connections money runs out in two years.

In addition, a psychologist from Hartgrove Hospital counsels students once a week for 10 weeks. Since the North Side psychiatric hospital has a partnership with Chicago Public Schools, its services are free to Ashe.

“Our kids need more than 10 weeks,” says Womack, “but that’s how these programs are structured.” Ashe is looking for a third agency that will offer free counseling to special ed students on an ongoing basis.

Ashe’s experience is not uncommon, says Andrea Kidd, an assistant director of special education for CPS. “Resistant staff, learning to work together, this is part of the learning process for schools starting out,” she says. “Every school goes through it when they are trying to move from where they are to where they want to be. And all this takes time. But once they reach a comfort level, and they experience success, it will be easier to do.”

That’s beginning to happen. For example, one particularly unruly classroom of special ed students was integrated into regular classrooms and is now doing well. “They are sitting down. They are not getting suspended. They are working because they see the other kids working and are trying to do the same thing,” says Womack.