West Chicago district an inclusion pioneer

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On a winter day in 1986, a routine trip to school turned into a near tragedy for a 5-year-old West Chicago girl with Down’s Syndrome—she fell out of her bus as it was traveling along busy Butterfield Road to her special education kindergarten in Warrenville.

Children were jumping around inside the bus, and the girl, Becky, bumped against the rear emergency door and fell out, her mother says. The driver didn’t notice and kept going. Bundled up in a snowsuit, Becky was not injured, but she was frightened, her mother says, “because the bus was gone.” A motorist who noticed the child stopped to help and called police. After that incident, Becky’s mother says, her main concern “was to keep her close to home.”

For a while, she drove her daughter to school. In 1990, however, the neighborhood school, Turner Elementary, agreed to pilot a program of inclusion, and Becky became one of five special ed pioneers. The program went so well that in 1993 the school district, West Chicago Elementary District 33, closed all its self-contained classes for special education students. Today, all but 22 of its some 300 children with disabilities attend their neighborhood schools. And the district draws visitors from throughout the state.

West Chicago takes a team approach. Regular education teachers are responsible for the education of their special ed students. However, they get help from special education facilitators, who modify curriculum and teaching methods to meet the goals of children’s individual education plans (IEPs), and from teacher’s assistants, who work individually with special ed students. If a child is having difficulty in a certain subject, the facilitator may work one-on-one with him in class. To make sure the team is in sync, all three meet weekly during school hours to review the child’s progress and plan for the next week.

“We have the weekly meeting no matter what,” says Jan Lootens, a 5th-grade teacher at Turner, a racially diverse school of 530 students. “And that is a really, really important piece, because then the teacher is not out there wondering ‘What am I going to do?'”

The district hires substitutes to cover the class. “We have the same sub every week,” Lootens says, so the sub becomes familiar with the class and the material. “There’s the commitment.”

On a Tuesday morning in April, teaching assistant Teresa Cinquegrani sits at a desk next to the teacher’s and uses flash cards to review vocabulary words with Michael, a 1st-grader diagnosed with a learning disability. Standing next to her, Michael gets to stamp each card he reads correctly. The regular teacher, Susan Masterson, walks among the rest of the children, who are quietly printing.

After Michael returns to his desk, Cinquegrani calls up two more children, one by one, to practice their vocabulary words; they haven’t been diagnosed with any disability. While Cinquegrani frequently works with regular children who are slow learners, the boy with a learning disability “comes first,” she stresses. “He is the one I am here for.”

She says she often goes over key concepts the teacher is covering, such as coins, with a small group of both special ed and non-disabled students. “Once they get that one goal, then it’s easier for them to blend with the other students,” she says.

Little experience

Before coming to Turner, Cinquegrani worked for five years as a teacher’s assistant in Elgin with children who had multiple handicaps. However, many of Turner’s 17 assistants have had little or no prior experience with people with disabilities.

Originally, the school, which has some 55 children in special ed, required assistants to have 30 hours of college credit. But it soon learned that “teaching assistants are hard to hire and hard to keep,” Lootens says. Some use the job “as a stepping stone, or they realize they can make more money substituting,” she says. Some just get sick of it, she adds. The school pays its assistants $7.40 an hour for a six-hour day.

Now the school requires assistants to have only a high school diploma. Principal Carol Auer says that when she interviews applicants, she looks for qualities such as “successful experience with children, warmth, caring and somebody who’s dependable.”

Beth Walrath worked for two years as a special ed teacher in a self-contained classroom in upstate New York before moving to Illinois to go to graduate school. Now she is one of three full-time special education facilitators at Turner and has a caseload of 20 children. (Turner shares one additional facilitator with two other schools.)

Walrath says that once a team gets to know its children, certain curriculum modifications become routine. For example, if a class is reading a novel, a special ed student may be assigned a condensed or summarized version. Another option: all students may be grouped by reading ability and assigned novels of varying difficulty. “That’s a modification that helps more than the children in my caseload,” she notes.

In math, a teacher’s assistant may have to go over a worksheet with slow learners individually or in a small group, but the special ed children “will have their turn at the board with everyone else,” Walrath says. If a math lesson is too difficult for a child, she says, he can “be the checker and do the math on the calculator.”

In social studies and health, special ed students sometimes are assigned fewer facts to master. “If the class is studying the whole nervous system, have [the children with a disability] focus on only the brain and spinal column,” she suggests.

Changing the curriculum requires changing the tests. “We re-write an awful lot of tests,” Walrath says. Sometimes only the method of testing is changed. “We test people orally,” she says. “For a science class, a student can demonstrate an experiment.” Instead of writing an essay on the Civil War, the student could be told to list the reasons for the conflict, she says.

Turner made physical modifications for a boy who had learning disabilities and limited vision, says Auer, the principal. He got a computer keyboard with larger letters, textbooks with larger print and uncluttered worksheets with bold print and distinct colors.

Walrath says the hardest part of her job is scheduling. Each facilitator has one full day of meetings a week, spending about 45 minutes with each teacher and assistant.

District 33’s move to inclusion was spearheaded by its superintendent, John Hennig. “I had been reading research on the effectiveness of special education [and was struck by] the deplorable condition of special education students in this country as they went into adulthood,” he says. Hennig was impressed by the inclusion ideas of a team of Canadian educators and took a group, including Auer and some school board members, to visit their program outside of Toronto.

“As we got involved in the research, we realized everyone was going to benefit from inclusion, not just the special ed students,” he says.

Hennig persuaded Auer to take up the challenge, and in turn, Auer talked to several teachers. “I didn’t ask for volunteers,” she says. “I selected three excellent teachers who were respected by the staff and good communicators.”

Persuasion needed

The district also won over several parents. “They sent me to a conference [on inclusion] in Normal, Illinois,” says Becky’s mother. “It was wonderful. It made me want to do it. I saw a bunch of parents who were convinced this was the thing to do.”

Lootens, who was then teaching 3rd grade, remembers the first year. The mother of one special ed student showed up “with a legal pad full of questions,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Holy Smoke! What did I get myself into?'” At year’s end, the mother came to the annual review with only “a little slip of paper with one or two questions,” she reports.

Hennig says, “If I’m a parent of a student with a disability, I have every reason to be fearful. If the school doesn’t provide the training and support, it doesn’t work. Everyone loses.”

Prior to inclusion, West Chicago’s special ed classes were held in whichever school had space for them. “The program moved around a lot,” notes Auer.

One parent says she was pleased one year when her son’s program moved to a school with large windows. He is visually impaired and would benefit from the extra light. Later, she learned that her son and about nine other special ed students spent their day in a large storage closet being used as a classroom.

Contemplating the move to a regular classroom, this mother said it was “what I had dreamed for him.” Even so, she was apprehensive. She and her husband feared that their son “would be so obedient, he just would be overlooked.”

To ease her fears, the school arranged a meeting with staff. “They let me meet [his teacher],” the mother recalls. “I wanted to know if the teacher wanted him there, or was this being forced on her.”

Inclusion can be difficult, Lootens acknowledges, “when you have a new, first-year teacher, a difficult child and an assistant who is not up to snuff.” The solution? “Other people have to get involved,” Looten says.

Some special ed students are easier to accommodate than others, she continues. Children with learning disabilities are “poster kids” for inclusion, she says. “It works well with them.” Children with behavior problems are sometimes more challenging.

“I’m no Pollyanna,” Lootens says. “There are kids in this school who I don’t think belong here.” She had a child in 3rd grade who used to yell out and crawl around the room. However, she acknowledges that when she talked to the class about his behavior, she learned that it disturbed her more than it did the other students.

Auer says Turner has had only one child it was not able to educate in its inclusion program. The boy, who had health problems and learning and behavioral disabilities, “was with us for 1st through 3rd grades. He left in the middle of 4th grade,” she says. “It was a difficult decision, but we were not meeting his needs.”

The faculty and families who have seen inclusion first-hand speak of its benefits with conviction. Now, a child with disabilities “has kids that he can take example from, be it good or bad,” says Lootens. “His peers are not all special ed kids.”

Becky, the girl who fell out of the bus, “learned not only how to cope with regular ed children, she made her behavior fit the regular ed class,” her mother says. “She wanted to be like them, so she made her behavior more acceptable.”

Sometimes general education teachers are discouraged by the slow progress of students with disabilities, Lootens says. “We want to make a difference in every kid’s life for the year we have them.” The special education child takes such small steps, she says, you don’t see that progress. Through parents’ feedback and over time, however, it becomes evident. “You don’t realize until the end of the year what leaps you’ve made,” Lootens says.

She remembers one boy who couldn’t write his name at the start of 3rd grade. He worked on it the whole year, writing it hundreds of times. Outside one day, he called her over to the swings. There in the gravel he had written his full name. “He was so proud. It was like he was saying, ‘Ta-Da!'”

Hennig says that for a district the size of Chicago, successfully adopting inclusion “will take a lot of good planning and a strategy on how to get there. You can’t turn that ship on a dime.” The first step, he says, is for the policymakers “to get their beliefs in line and communicate [them]. You have to let the staff know what you expect, provide support and supervise them,” he says. “Tell them these are the consequences if you don’t believe.”

Says Turner’s Auer, “We were told, ‘The board has adopted this, and this is the way of the future. There is no refusal, you’re either on the wagon or out of the district.'”